Preparation is key in storms zones, and in no area is that more true than protecting food supplies from contamination during flooding.
Home food preservation – methods of taking fresh fruits, vegetables and sometimes meats and storing them for later use – is a traditional and still-popular method in several communities around the country. The methods used by home food preservationists are sometimes built on tradition and not proper science, some experts say, and maintaining safe methods of production are important for households hoping to use those foods later, especially when a storm threatens to make those supplies the primary source of nutrition for up to several days.
Dr. Elizabeth Andress, who leads the National Center for Home Food Processing and Preservation (NCHFPP) at the University of Georgia, said the goal of the center is ensuring people are preserving food using correct, scientifically-proven methods. The Center contributes to USDA guidelines for food preservation and gauges the public’s knowledge and canning and freezing practices, reaching out to Cooperative Extensions nationwide to relay the latest information on food safety. Online, the Center’s website include training modules for home canners.
Among home canners, there can be some discrepancies between proper methods and those popularly spread. The disconnect between homespun methods and scientific reality is impacted by economic factors, Andress said. While there is an interest in community-centered processing facilities for those interested, staffing of Cooperative Extension centers with trained experts has been severely reduced by state funding gaps.
“If people can foods at home in storm-sensitive areas, they need to be aware that certain disaster situations can create safety concerns with use of the foods,” she said. “For example, it is not recommended to use home canned foods exposed to flood waters. There are too many unknowns about how well it would have been sealed, whether seals would have allowed some transmission through the sealing area, etc. An emergency is not the time to experience foodborne illness in case there is any chance!”
One major misconception about home canning is that there are many ways to process food safely.
“With regard to canning, a number of people seem to think canning can be a creative type of art, when in reality, safety requires many procedures be followed precisely,” Andress said. “One myth is that something is ‘magical’ about pressure. That once you use a pressure canner, all safety concerns can be taken of. But many factors go into making a canning procedure safe.”
Another important concern that Andress said she relays to home food processors is that botulism toxin can be detected in bulging cans or those with strange odors. In truth, the toxin can form without any outward signs from cans, and following canning techniques prescribed canning techniques can prevent such a risk.
Home canners and processors approaching the Center for information come from around the nation, Andress said, and some of the questions she receives deal with the safety of food during food emergencies.
People preserving their own food needs a variety of resources to ensure their supplies do not spoil and are not suspect to environmental factors such as heat, humidity and water. Among the items needed are a sanitary kitchen and appropriate pressure canning equipment. Jars and cans must be the same size as those used in expert research to replicate processing times and temperatures, as well as appropriate range tops for cooking. most importantly, people need to have the correct procedures to follow.
“I find many people who find their way to us with questions to need better understanding of microbiological issues of food handling and preservation,” she said. “That there is a lot of misinformation being shared among family and friends, as well as Internet sites and discussion groups.”
Dr. Elizabeth Reames, professor of nutrition and food safety at Louisiana State University, works in the university’s agricultural extension. She said that she receives several requests for information on safe food storage during disasters, in which power outages and flooding are common.
To preserve any frozen or refrigerated foods, generators are a necessity for people in storm-prone areas, she said. Food should be stored in containers that will not break or tear – meaning no cardboard or paper containers – and should be stored with potential high temperatures in mind in case climate control is not available.
One misconception centers around storage location, especially given the length of some power outages.
“Since there have been several storms with 2 and 3 week power outages, most people are now aware that freezers and refrigerators aren’t going to provide safe food storage without a generator,” Reames said.
The best storage solutions are to follow tested, recommended procedures, she said, using recommended equipment and the latest research-based information from credible sources.
Home-canned foods should be stored at a height well above anticipated flood levels, and should be kept in places that will remain at less than 95 degress Fahrenheit. Temperature control will curb the growth of any bacteria not killed in the canning process, which can spoil food, she said.
To properly store food caned in metal, residents should find places between 50-70 degrees Fahrenheit and experiencing lower humidity, between 50-60 percent, which can be an issue because many storm-prone areas experience high heat and humidity for extensive spans of hurricane season.
For more information on safe food storage, visit these resources:
Storing store-bought food and water for disasters
Disasters can strike quickly and without warning. FEMA and the American Red Cross advise keeping at least three days’ worth of non-perishable food in a home. For people not preparing and storing their own food, or just supplementing their supply, many of the same storage tips apply.
As part of an emergency kit, FEMA guidelines recommend storing up to one gallon of water per person per day in the home. To prepare safest and most reliable emergency supply of water, FEMA recommends people purchase commercially bottled water or use food-grade water storage containers from camping or surplus stores, which should be thoroughly rinsed and washed with soap and water. For those using other containers for water, FEMA recommends two-liter soft drink bottles and not those that can decompose or break, such as milk cartons or glass bottles. Plastic bottles being reused should be cleaned with soap, water and bleach.
Fill the bottle to the top with regular tap water. If the tap water has been commercially treated from a water utility with chlorine, it is safe, but if it comes from a well or water source that is not treated with chlorine, add two drops of non-scented liquid household chlorine bleach to the water. Tightly close the container using the original cap, being careful not to contaminate it by sticking fingers in the bottle. Bottles should be dated and stored in cool, dark places, and should be replaced every six months if not purchased commercially.
A normally active person needs to drink at least two quarts of water each day. Hot environments and intense physical activity can double that amount. Children, nursing mothers and ill people will need more. Keep at least a three-day supply for all activities – two quarts for drinking and two quarts of water for each person in the household for food preparation/sanitation.
Store at least a three-day supply of non-perishable food. Select foods that require no refrigeration, preparation or cooking and little or no water, and are high in calories. If food must be heated, canned heat products should be included in an emergency kit.
Select food items that are compact and lightweight. Check expiration dates and eat older items first, keeping them toward the front of the pantry. Include ready-to-eat canned meats, fruits and vegetables. Store formula and powdered milk for infants, and consider the special needs of the elderly or ill, keeping canned soups and juice in your home.
Wrap perishable foods, such as cookies or crackers, in plastic bags and keep them in sealed containers. To protect packages of sugar, dried fruits and nuts, empty them into screw-top or other air-tight containers. Swollen, dented or corroded cans should be thrown out.
FEMA also suggests avoiding foods that will make you thirsty. Choose salt-free crackers, whole grain cereals, and canned foods with high liquid content.