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Keep food safe in times of flooding

I just looked out my office window at sheets of blowing snow. I'm blocks from a rising river being held back by millions of pounds of sandbags put in place by thousands of volunteers in North Dakota and Minnesota.

I rarely write a food safety column with advice that I hope people do not need to follow. This is one of those columns. As soon as I finish writing it, my boots and gloves will go on, and I'll join the flood fight.

These are some commonly asked questions about food safety during flooding situations. Even if you do not need the information at present, file it away in your mind. You just don't know what life will hand you.

Question: My basement was flooded. I had many canned goods stored there. Is any of the food safe?

Answer: Floodwaters carry bacteria and, potentially, oil and chemical waste. If you handle containers exposed to floodwater, be sure to wash your hands carefully.

Most food touched by floodwater needs to be discarded. Those items include:

• Submerged glass jars with cardboard lid liners, such as most mayonnaise or salad dressing containers

• Fresh fruits and vegetables

• Submerged, unopened jars of home-canned foods

• All food in cardboard boxes, paper, foil or cellophane

• Flour, sugar, spices and seasonings in bags or canisters

• Canned goods that are dented, leaking, bulging or rusted.

Canned foods in undamaged cans can be salvaged, but the cans should be sanitized by following this process:

• Mark the tops of the cans with the contents.

• Remove labels and wash the cans in a strong detergent solution, using a scrub brush.

• Prepare a sanitizing solution consisting of 2 tablespoons of chlorine bleach per gallon of room- temperature water. Immerse the cans for 10 minutes.

• Allow the containers to air-dry.

Question: A flood is on the way. I probably will have seepage and, potentially, sewage backup in my basement. What can I do to protect my food?

Answer: With imminent flooding, consider these tips to prevent floodwater from coming in contact with food:

• Move food stored in the basement to the upstairs.

• Raise refrigerators and freezers by placing cement blocks under the corners.

• Move food from low to high cabinets.

Question: Our power went out during a flood, leaving us without a working refrigerator or freezer for a couple of days. Is any of the food safe?

Answer: Temperature control is critical for keeping perishable food safe, so use a food thermometer to measure the temperature of the food.

Foods in a freezer without power may stay frozen up to three days, depending on some factors. If the door was kept closed, the freezer was full and the temperature outside was moderate, you have a better chance of rescuing your food.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, if perishable food (meat, seafood, milk and casseroles) stays above 40 degrees for more than two hours, it should be discarded.

If the frozen food still is partially frozen, as evidenced by ice crystals, you can refreeze the food and maintain safety and quality. If frozen food is thawed but still cold (40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower), you can use it.

When in doubt, throw it out. For more information about dealing with flood issues, visit the North Dakota State University Extension Service disaster information Web site,

Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and associate professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.