Flooding: food safety advice

If you have been affected by flooding, either because your home has been flooded, or your water supply has been cut off, read our tips on how to prepare food safely.

Flood water can be contaminated with sewage, animal waste and other waste, from drains or the surrounding area, and so could be contaminated with harmful bacteria or chemicals. However any contaminants in the water are usually very diluted and so the risks of getting ill are low. Also following simple hygiene practices should be enough to avoid getting ill from flood water.

General tips

It's important to follow good food hygiene to stop harmful germs that might be present in flood water spreading to food. Here are some general tips on keeping food safe:

  • Don't eat any food that has been touched or covered by floodwater or sewage.
  • Always wash your hands before preparing food.
  • Clean and disinfect work surfaces, plates, pans, cutlery, plastic or ceramic chopping boards etc. before using them with food. If you have a working dishwasher, this is a more efficient way to clean and sanitise smaller items. Or use a suitable disinfectant.
  • Discard wooden chopping boards and wooden spoons if contaminated by flood water.
  • Clean and disinfect the inside of your fridge and food cupboards, if they have been touched by floodwater.
  • Don't use work surfaces, plates etc. if they are badly chipped or damaged.
  • If tap water may be contaminated, boil and cool it before using it to wash food that won’t be cooked, such as fruit or salad.
  • If your power has been cut off and your fridge has not been working for more than four hours throw away the food inside.
  • If your freezer has not been working, throw away any meat, fish or dairy products, or foods containing these, if they have started to get soft. Also throw away any food that you would eat frozen, for example ice cream.
  • Depending upon how full the freezer is, produce can remain frozen for 24 hours or more. The more full the freezer, the longer the contents will remain frozen.
  • Store opened food in a container with a lid.

If you have a catering business and have been affected by flooding, ask for advice from the environmental health service at your local authority. Find contact details of your nearest local authority.

Fresh fruit and vegetables

For fresh fruit and vegetables that are grown either for sale or for your own consumption:

Fruit and vegetables to be eaten raw

  • You should throw away any produce that has come into contact with flood water if it is to be eaten raw, such as lettuce or strawberries. It is fine to eat produce that is growing above the water and has not come into contact with flood water e.g. fruit on trees.
  • Fruit or vegetables to be eaten raw and planted after flooding should not be harvested for at least six months after the floodwater has receded. This means that if the growing cycle of the crop you intend to produce is shorter than six months you are advised to delay replanting to ensure that harvesting does not take place until six months after the floodwater receded. You do not need to delay re-planting if the growing cycle is 6 months or more. This is to make sure that any harmful germs that might be in the soil from the flood water will not survive and contaminate the produce.

Fruit and vegetables to be cooked

  • It is OK to eat produce that is to be cooked, even if it has been in contact with flood water. This is because cooking will kill any harmful germs that might be present. To reduce the risk of cross-contamination wash produce thoroughly, paying particular attention to removing any visible soil, prior to storage, preparation or cooking. Where possible this should be done outside the home. Further advice on how to wash, store and prepare raw vegetables safely is provided on NHS Choices website (see 'NHS Choices' link on this page).
  • Always wash your hands before and after handling produce.
  • You do not need to wait before planting new crops if the fruit or vegetables will be cooked before being eaten.

If you need any more information, speak to the environmental health service at your local authority.

Further guidance for fresh produce growers on practical food safety and risk assessment, developed jointly by FSA and the Horticultural Development Company, is also available (see 'Related items' link).

Feeding babies

If your drinking water supply is either interrupted or contaminated by the flooding and you need to prepare formula feed for a baby, it is important to be careful with the water you use. Here are some tips on preparing formula safely:

  • Ideally use water from a bowser (a water tank provided by water companies), or bottled water, brought to a 'rolling' boil and left covered to cool for no more than half an hour, then follow the manufacturer’s instructions on making up the feed. The use of unboiled bowser water should be avoided.
  • Use cooled boiled water or cooled boiled bottled water for cooling the feed once it has been made up.
  • Ready-to-feed liquid formula could be used instead.
  • If there is no electricity or gas to allow boiling and you don’t have ready-to-feed liquid formula available, bottled water (table, spring or mineral water) can be used without boiling to prepare baby feeds, but the prepared feed should then be used immediately.
  • Some bottled water labelled as 'natural mineral water' may have high levels of sodium or sulphate. When buying bottles of natural mineral water, look at the label and check that the figure for sodium (or 'Na') is not higher than 200mg a litre and sulphate (or ‘SO’ or ‘SO4’) is not higher than 250mg a litre. If it is, then try to use another water. If no other water is available, then use this water for as short a time as possible.
  • Wash your hands before preparing formula and before feeding an infant. You can use alcohol-based hand sanitizer for washing your hands if the water supply is limited.
  • Clean feeding bottles with bottled, boiled, or treated water before each use.

Disposal of flood-damaged food

Put flood-damaged food in black plastic refuse sacks, double bagged if possible, seal and put out when your next refuse collection is due.

Remember to check with insurers before disposal because food may be insured. Do not be tempted to try to salvage damaged food - including tins as they may be damaged or contaminated.