Ensuring food safety and nutritional requirements in emergency situations

By Anika Rouf*
Wednesday, 22 April, 2020

Ensuring food safety and nutritional requirements in emergency situations

Natural disasters pose a threat to food security — the ready availability of food that is safe for consumption and nutritionally adequate. In most cases, natural disasters result in displacement of people from their settlements, decreased agricultural outputs and increased food prices, as well as personal and financial hardship for communities.

Disruption of essential utilities including electricity, gas and water is very common in natural events, whether it be floods, cyclones, severe storms or other disasters. In light of the recent bushfires and floods across the country, it is important to educate consumers on coping strategies so they are better equipped to deal with natural disasters.

Good emergency preparedness includes having a plan to stock up on adequate supplies of food and water as well as other essentials such as health documentation and IDs.

Building an essential pantry and emergency kit for your household

Most people do groceries on a weekly basis but this may not be possible in the event of an emergency. Due to damage to homes, it may be difficult to prepare foods after a disaster so it may be useful to stock up for a 14-day period. Here are some essentials to consider:

  • Bottled water
  • Water sterilising tablets
  • Concentrated juices/sports drinks
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Bread
  • Spreads that do not need to be refrigerated (such as peanut butter)
  • Milk powder/UHT milk
  • Health supplies and medications
  • Ready-to-eat meals
  • Canned foods
  • A manual can opener
  • Baby food/formula
  • Snack foods (such as dried fruits, nuts, biscuits, crackers, snack bars)
  • Alcohol-based wipes (if the water supply is likely to be disrupted)
  • Plastic cutlery and paper crockery
  • Gloves for food handling
  • Heavy-duty aluminium foil.

Preparing food and water before a natural disaster

If you are living in a disaster-prone zone or have been issued with evacuation warnings, it is necessary to have at least a three-day supply of food. These foods should have a long storage life, require little or no cooking, water or refrigeration and meet the needs of babies or other family members with dietary requirements.

Any salty or spicy foods should be avoided as these increase the need to drink water, which may be in short supply. After receiving evacuation warnings, at least a three-day water supply for each person and pet should be stored and covered as water may be in short supply or become contaminated.

As it may not be possible to source fresh food following a natural disaster — particularly if there is no power — canned vegetables such as corn, beetroot and lentils are a good option, as well as canned fish and legumes as a source of protein. These can be paired with carbohydrates such as wholegrain toast or crackers. Breakfast cereals consumed with UHT milk would provide a source of carbohydrate, calcium and other micronutrients.

In the case of a power outage:
  • Refrigerated foods will remain safe if the power outage lasts for up to four hours. However, if the outage continues for more than four hours, the food should be thrown out.
  • Frozen foods are safe for up to a one day after a power failure.
  • In order to maintain the cold temperature, it is best not to open the door unless food needs to be removed or eaten.
  • Ice bricks from the freezer can be placed into a cooler bag and used for keeping perishable foods (such as meat, poultry, seafood, dairy and cooked foods).
  • Once the power is restored, use a thermometer to determine the safety of foods. Any food that has reached more than 6° should be thrown out.
In the case of a bushfire:
  • One of the main dangers of fire is the toxic fumes from burning materials — any food that has been near a fire should be thrown out, even if it appears to be ok. Food in the refrigerator (raw and cooked) should be thrown out as the refrigerator seal isn’t airtight, which means fumes can get inside.
  • Chemicals used to fight fires contain toxic chemicals so any cooking utensils that may have been exposed to firefighting chemicals should be washed in hot soapy water then sanitised in one tablespoon of chlorine bleach per 2 L of water and rinsed.
  • Any food being disposed should be wrapped in newspaper and placed in the bin. Incorrect disposal could result in fly breeding or animal and pest scavenging.
In the case of flood:
  • Throw out any food that may have come into contact with flood water. Similarly, discard any food packed in plastic, paper or cardboard that appears to be water damaged.
  • Do not drink tap water unless you have received updates from your local council declaring it to be safe for drinking. Bottled water is safe to drink as long as it has not been exposed to flood waters. If this is not available, water must be boiled first to kill any disease-causing organisms that may be present. Allow the water to cool before drinking.
  • When boiling is not possible, household bleach can be used to kill some (not all) disease-causing organisms. Add 1/8 teaspoon (8 drops) of regular household bleach for each gallon (~4 L of water). If water appears to be cloudy, use a clean cloth to filter.
  • Wash dishes and cooking utensils that have been exposed to flood water using hot soapy water.

*Anika Rouf is a dietician and PhD candidate in nutrition and dietetics at the School of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Sydney.

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/photka

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