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Handling food safely after a flood

By the U of A System Division of Agriculture
May 10, 2017

Fast facts:

  • When it comes to post-disaster food, ‘when in doubt, throw it out’
  • Floodwater can contaminate food with disease-causing organisms or chemicals
  • Some commercially canned, sealed foods may be salvageable
  • Download, ‘Keep Food and Water Safe During Power Outages and Floods’

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(Download a MS Word version of this story here.)

LITTLE ROCK – Flooding can threaten lives in many ways, even after rivers return to their banks as water can contaminate homes and food and water supplies with disease organisms, dirt and chemicals, said food safety experts with the Cooperative Extension Service. 

“Floods are devastating to homes and property and food safety is one of the many things to deal with after a flood,” said Rosemary Rodibaugh, extension specialist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture and associate department head-Family and Consumer Sciences.  

“Nobody wants to throw away food that they have purchased, or hunted, fished, grown, preserved or frozen,” she said, but “floodwaters contain disease­causing organisms that can contaminate food.” 

Rodibaugh said, “If you are not sure if the food was directly exposed and is safe for consumption, it is safer to throw out the food: ‘If in doubt, throw it out.” 

What to keep, what to toss

If any of the following food items were exposed, or even possibly exposed or splashed with flood waters, they should be discarded.

  • Perishable food items in your refrigerator and freezer, including raw fruits and vegetables, meat, poultry, fish, eggs, cheese, cartons of milk and yogurt.
  • Non-perishable foods in boxes, paper, foil, or cloth, including cereal, juice, powdered milk.
  • Spices, seasonings, extracts.
  • All home canned foods, since the area under the seal of the jars and bottles cannot be properly disinfected.
  • Any food and drinks in containers with screw-caps, pull tops, and crimped caps, including mayonnaise and salad dressing.
  • Opened containers and packages.
  • Flour, grain, sugar, coffee, and other staples in canisters. 

Commercially prepared foods in metal cans and “retort pouches,” such as flexible, shelf-stable juices, that are undamaged must be thoroughly washed and disinfected. 

Throw away any damaged cans or pouches, including those with dents, leaks, swelling, punctures, fractures, or extensive deep rusting.

Rinse the containers with safe drinking water, if available, and then sanitize them by placing them in water, bringing the water to a boil, and then boiling for two minutes. Or, place the containers in a freshly made solution of one tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of safe water for 15 minutes. Air dry them for at least one hour before either opening or storing them. Use the food as soon as possible. 

“You’ll also need to sanitize cooking utensils, pans, dishes, glasses, and silverware exposed to flood water,” Rodibaugh said.

Thoroughly wash metal pans, ceramic dishes, glasses and utensils, including can openers, with soap and water, using hot water if available. 

Rinse and then sanitize them by boiling in clean water or immersing them for 15 minutes in a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of drinking water, or the cleanest, clearest water available.  

As above, thoroughly wash countertops with soap and water, using hot water if available. Rinse, and then sanitize by applying a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of drinking water (or the cleanest, clearest water available). Allow to air dry.

Discard wooden and plastic utensils, storage containers and cutting boards made of porous material that can absorb water, cracked or chipped dishes, baby nipples, pacifiers, and any other porous nonfood items that are used with food. 

Download “Keep Food and Water Safe During Power Outages and Floods,” FSFCS01, at

For more information on food safety or dealing with disasters such as flooding, see: and or contact you county extension office.

About the Division of Agriculture

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s mission is to strengthen agriculture, communities, and families by connecting trusted research to the adoption of best practices. Through the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative Extension Service, the Division of Agriculture conducts research and extension work within the nation’s historic land grant education system.


The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs and services without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.   

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Media Contact: Mary Hightower
Dir. of Communication Services
U of A Division of Agriculture
Cooperative Extension Service
(501) 671-2126

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