FDA issues food safety guidelines for facilities affected by hurricanes

Southeastern Americans and Caribbean residents are pulling themselves up and pulling together after two hurricanes wreaked havoc in the areas in a short time frame.

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma destroyed homes and took lives in the U.S. and throughout the Caribbean. The floodwaters they left are fraught with risk; pathogens, chemical contaminants and other hidden dangers can cause damage well after the winds and rain have subsided.

To help minimize damage done in the aftermath, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has published guidelines to growers, food manufacturers and warehouse managers, as well as food product transporters, about how to handle food affected by the disasters.

Crops

“If the edible portion of a crop is exposed to flood waters, it is considered adulterated and should not enter human food channels,” says the FDA. Truth is, there are no easy ways of effectively removing contamination from exposed crops. Fruits, grains and vegetables that have touched flood water should be kept away from clean crops and disposed of.

What if your crops came close to floodwaters, but edible parts of the plants didn’t touch water? The FDA says these situations need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, depending on the likelihood that floodwaters were contaminated, the type of crop and stage of growth, and if the exposure was long enough to support fungal growth (and the development of mycotoxins).

Refrigeration and power outages

Electricity was lost in many areas for long period of time, and so, refrigerated food may have grown warm enough for pathogens to multiply quickly. Food that has begun to spoil needs to be tossed out (true for both industry producers and people at home). In some circumstances, the FDA says, these food items might be able to be diverted to animal feed.

“Refrigerated and frozen foods, including beverages such as milk, that have been immersed in floodwaters must be destroyed,” said the FDA. “Storage vats or sealed tanks of milk in processing plants that have been underwater cannot be reconditioned.”

This also applies to food in screw-top containers, like pop bottles, that have been exposed to standing water. “Sediment and debris from floodwater that may become lodged under cap lips…are impossible to remove, especially after they have dried,” said the FDA.

Food in plastic, paper, cardboard, cloth and other insecure packaging can’t be salvaged, as it is very easy for contaminated water to seep through these materials.

What can be saved? According to the FDA, food in hermetically sealed cans can be reconditioned, as long as no damage was done.

For the animals

Casey Matney, Rangeland Extension Specialist for Colorado State University, wrote a paper on grazing on pasture following flooding. He recommends not only waiting for waters to fully recede before putting animals back to pasture, but an additional 30 days on top of that.

“After the water has receded and the land is dry, it may be advisable to wait approximately 30 days or so to allow the vegetation to regrow and any chemicals or waste accumulated on plants to dissipate,” he said, adding that the 30 days can be spent clearing debris and repairing fences, if needed.

He also stresses the importance of ensuring all drinking water is safe for animals returning to pasture, and that you and your livestock have received proper vaccinations before entering a flood-impacted area.

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