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Food safety in an emergency

NOTE TO EDITORS: The New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA), has prepared an article about food safety during an emergency that you are free to use at any time. The article talks about food safety before, during and after an emergency. The weather over the past few days is a reminder that this is the season when disaster is likely to strike. We hope it will be useful for readers, listeners and viewers.

Food safety in an emergency

Being prepared for a disaster is crucial if you live in New Zealand. We are at the mercy of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and, possibly, tsunamis. With winter on our doorsteps, extreme weather can cause floods and storms.

It is important to be aware of how to get information on food and water safety during an emergency. This will come from your local authority and public health unit and it is likely that different areas of the country will face different issues. But when it comes to food, the same preparation applies wherever you live.

Prepare a survival kit

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 the following items to last at least three days:

- canned and/or dried food – luncheon meat, ham, fish, fruits, vegetables, cereals, tea, coffee, powdered soup, salt, sugar, sweets, biscuits
- a can opener
- a primus/portable gas cooker or barbeque 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.

Check and renew food and water every year, taking into account any medical or dietary conditions in your family. If you have babies or children, make sure they have enough suitable food.

If you live in a flood-prone area keep your food survival kit above the likely reach of flood water.

Minimising food and water spoilage

During an emergency you need to ensure you have the right facilities available. Normal household appliances, such as fridges and ovens, may break down. Your food could spoil faster and your water supply could become contaminated. To avoid this, follow these steps:

- eat perishable foods, for example bread and meat, first as they spoil faster than non-perishable food
- eat canned foods last
- minimise food spoilage by opening the fridge or freezer only when you need to take food out
- 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 them cold
- throw out rotting or tainted food before it spoils other 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 utensils are clean before use
- cook food thoroughly
- cover all food with plastic wrap or store in waterproof containers
- keep a supply of fly spray
- rubbish containing food scraps must be protected from flies and rats by wrapping or putting in a sealed container.

Water for cooking, dishes, and washing yourself

The following household facilities can be used to cook, wash dishes, and wash your hands:

- hot water cylinder
- toilet cistern – as long as no chemical toilet cleaner is present
- bottled water
- spa/swimming pool – use only for washing yourself and family.

Boil or purify water before using it in food preparation and to avoid cross-contamination of food.
Once boiled, cover and store in a clean container and place in the fridge (if it's working) or in another cool place. Re-boil the water if it is not used within 24 hours.

If you do not have power to boil water, purifying tablets or bleach can be added to ensure its safety. Add five drops of household bleach per litre of water and leave for 30 minutes.

Food safety after an emergency

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:

- any food that retains ice crystals and where the packaging has not been damaged or opened can be safely refrozen
- foods that have been defrosted can still be used if they have just recently defrosted and can be kept cold, ie the fridge is working again
- defrosted food cannot be refrozen
- inspect the food. Does it smell or appear different, has the colour changed and does it have a slimy texture? If so it is probably unsafe to eat
- do not use any tinned food that has been damaged (for example if it has split seams, is swollen or has been punctured).

You should always be prepared for a disaster. If you follow the guidelines above they may stop you from becoming ill – the last thing you need on top of other problems you may already have

Food safety is just one step in staying safe during and after an emergency. To find out more visit the Civil Defence website:


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