Food safety in natural disasters and emergencies
Natural disasters and adverse events (like floods, storms, power cuts, and earthquakes) can affect your access to clean water and electricity. Find out how to protect yourself from foodborne illness during and after these events.
Keep food and water safe
During an emergency:
- fridges, freezers, and ovens may break down, and food could spoil more quickly
- water supplies could get cut off or get polluted
- sewerage systems could get disrupted.
To avoid getting sick from food during emergencies:
- eat foods that will expire soon first – for example, bread and meat because they spoil more quickly than non-perishable food
- eat canned foods last
- open the fridge and freezer as little as possible to help keep it cooler for longer
- do not eat vegetables or fruits that have been lying in flood water
- cover all food with plastic wrap, or store in waterproof containers
- leave bottles, drink cans, and water containers in the fridge (if it's working) to keep things cold
- throw out bad or rotting food before it spoils other food.
Focus on hygiene when preparing and cooking food
Maintaining hygiene around food preparation and cooking requires more thought than normal.
- Always wash and dry your hands before preparing food – if water is in short supply, keep some in a bowl with disinfectant.
- Ensure all kitchen utensils are clean before use.
- Cook food thoroughly.
- Cover all food with plastic wrap or store in waterproof containers.
- Rubbish containing food scraps must be protected from flies and rats by wrapping the scraps or putting them in a sealed container.
How to use clean water and keep it safe and clean
To cook, wash dishes, and wash your hands, you can use water from:
- a hot water cylinder
- a toilet cistern – as long as no chemical toilet cleaner is present
- a spa/swimming pool – they can be used to wash yourself and your family.
You can also use bottled water.
Boil or purify water before using it in food preparation. This helps to avoid spreading viruses and bacteria between food. Once boiled, cover and store food in a clean container and place in the fridge (if it's working) or in some other cool place. Re-boil the water if it is not used within 24 hours.
If you do not have power to boil water, then purifying tablets or bleach can be added to ensure its safety. Add 5 drops of household bleach per litre of water (or half a teaspoon for 10 litres) and leave for 30 minutes. Do not use bleaches that contain added scent or perfume, surfactants, or other additives – they can make people sick.
After an emergency, make sure food is safe
Knowing what is safe to eat during the "clean-up" phase after an emergency can become a guessing game. Understand what may or may not be safe to eat.
- Check the food – does it smell or look different? Has the colour changed and does it have a slimy texture? If so, it's probably unsafe to eat.
- If food is still visibly frozen (for example, it still has ice crystals on it), and packaging isn't damaged or open, you can still safely refreeze it.
- You should not refreeze food that has defrosted.
- You can still keep or use food that was frozen but has defrosted, you just need to keep it cold (like in the fridge).
- Do not use any tinned food that has been damaged (for example, if the can has broken open, become deeply dented, or is heavily rusted).
You should always be prepared for a disaster. If you follow the guidelines above, they may help prevent you or your family from becoming ill.
Food safety is just one step in staying safe during and after an emergency. Civil Defence has more information on what to do in an emergency.
Prepare a survival kit for next time
There are many things you can do to minimise the impact on your health before disaster strikes. Put together an emergency food survival kit. Do it now, and make sure you include enough of the following items to last at least 3 days.
- Canned or dried food – luncheon meat, ham, fish, fruits, vegetables, cereals, tea, coffee, powdered soup, salt, sugar, sweets, biscuits, a can opener.
- A primus or portable gas cooker or barbecue to cook on.
- Eating equipment – utensils, knives, pots, cups, plates, bowls, matches, lighters.
- Bottled water – 3 litres per person per day, or 6 to 8 large plastic soft-drink bottles of water per person per day.
- Bottled water – 1 litre for washing food and cooking each meal, washing dishes and washing yourself.
- Milk powder or UHT milk.
Storing your survival kit
- Regularly restock and refresh your emergency food supplies.
- Consider your family's medical or dietary needs. If you have babies or children, make sure they have enough suitable food.
- Check use-by dates and make sure cans and packaging are not damaged or rusty.
- Throw away any item that is not in good condition.
- If you live in a place that's at risk of flooding, keep your survival kit above where the water might reach.
Tips for food safety during and after an emergency [PDF, 214 KB]
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