Food Safety and Storage for Emergencies

— Written By Jeannie Leonard and last updated by Jill Cofer
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Food Safety illustrationWith the winter season approaching it is always wise to be prepared for the chance of winter weather. Food storage is one part of being prepared for emergencies and natural disasters. How much and which foods to store will depend on members of your household, your preferences, special health conditions, ability to use the food in an emergency and space available for storage.

Planning for short-term emergency needs may be as simple as increasing the quantities of some staple foods and non-perishable foods that you regularly keep and use. However, to make sure you haven’t forgotten some of the essentials, experts recommend thinking through and keeping a three-day supply of food and water on hand per person.

To keep food safe and avoid food-borne illness, you need to know what foods to store and how to handle food afterwards.

  • Stock foods that require no refrigeration.
  • Store foods your family normally eats, plus favorite treats. A crisis is not the time to learn to eat new foods.
  • Avoid too many foods high in salt, as this will increase thirst.
  • Store single servings or one-meal size to avoid leftovers, as refrigeration may not be available.
  • Canned foods keep almost indefinitely as long as cans are undamaged (also check the “best if used by” date). The can also will work as the cooking and serving dish. Open can and remove label before heating. Do not place metal cans in the microwave.

Foods recommended for storage:

  • Water- one gallon per person per day for drinking, cooking, and personal hygiene.
  • Ready-to-eat canned foods- vegetables, fruit, beans, meat, fish, poultry, meat mixtures, and pasta.
  • Soups- canned or “dried soups in a cup”.
  • Smoked or dried meats- commercial beef jerky.
  • Dried fruits and vegetables- raisins, fruit leather.
  • Juices (vegetables and fruit) – bottled, canned or powdered.
  • Milk- powdered, canned, evaporated.
  • Staples- sugar, salt, pepper, instant potatoes and rice, coffee, tea, cocoa mix.
  • Ready-to-eat cereals, instant hot cereals, crackers, hard taco shells.
  • High-energy foods- peanut butter, jelly, nuts, trail mix, granola bars.
  • Cookies, hard candy, chocolate bars, soft drinks, other snacks.

Be sure to store one or two manual can openers with your emergency food supply. Canned foods can be heated indoors with canned heat such as Sterno. Charcoal grills, hibachis, and camp stoves must be used outside. The food storage area should be located where the average temperature can be kept above 32 degrees Fahrenheit and below 70 degrees. Remember the cooler the storage area, the longer the retention of quality and nutrients. The storage area should be dry (less than 15 percent humidity), and adequately ventilated to prevent condensation of moisture on packaging material. Food should not be stored on the floor; the lowest shelf should be 2-3 feet off the floor. Date and rotate food every 6-12 months. Replace foods as needed.

Electrical equipment such as freezers, furnaces, and hot water heaters should not be housed in the storage area. These appliances produce heat, which unnecessarily increases storage temperatures.

Food should only be stored in food-grade containers. A food-grade container is one that will not transfer non-food chemicals into the food and contains no chemicals that would be hazardous to human health. Examples of containers NOT approved for food use are trash or garbage bags, paint, or solvent cans, industrial plastics and fiber barrels that have been used for non-food purposes. Don’t assume all plastic containers are food grade. For example a plaster bucket and a pickle bucket look the same but only one of them is safe to hold food. If you’re not sure, don’t use it. The safety of storage containers can be determined by contacting the manufacturer and asking if a particular container is approved for food use. Many manufacturers are beginning to indicate on the container label if is approved for food use.

Package dried foods in airtight, moisture-proof, insect-proof containers such as glass jars or plastic freezer boxes or bags. Metal cans with tight-fitting lids can be used if the dried food is first placed in a plastic bag. Package dried foods in small amounts because once the package is open, the food can absorb moisture from the air and quality will deteriorate. Store containers of dried foods in a dry, cool, dark place. Low storage temperatures extend shelf life of dried products. Exposure to humidity or air decrease shelf life. If packaged correctly, foods stored at temperatures below 60 degrees maintain quality for about one year.

The main concern with perishables is when the power goes off and you have no idea when it will be back, then it’s time to think food safety.

The key to determining the safety of foods in the refrigerator and freezer is the temperature. Bacteria that multiply rapidly at temperatures above 40 degrees cause most food-borne illness.

Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed. Open the refrigerator as little as possible. Every time you open the refrigerator door, cold air escapes. Refrigerated items should be safe as long as the power is off no more than about 4-6 hours. A full freezer should keep foods safe for about two days; a half-full freezer, about one-day. If foods still contain ice crystals and/or if the freezer is 40 degrees or less and has been at that temperature no longer than one to two days, food that was safe when it was originally frozen should still be safe. These foods can be refrozen or cooked and eaten. Discard any perishable food that has been stored at temperature above 40 degrees for 2 or more hours, or any food that has an unusual odor, color, or taste.

You should never taste food to determine its safety. Some foods may appear fine, but harmful bacteria and or toxins, which can be tasteless and odorless, might be present.

Be sure to store one gallon of water per person per day, for drinking, cooking, and personal hygiene. Options for safe water in an emergency include, bottled water, tap water stored in sterilized containers, uncontaminated water drained from your hot water heater/plumbing system, or water you purify after an emergency.