Natural Disasters and Food Supply

As we witness daily the news updates of the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina, many professional groups are being called on for their expertise to assist victims and head response teams. One area of personal concern for me is the safety of the food supply, both the immediate needs in areas hit by the hurricane and the long-term viability of our food sources.

As I observe the pictures of standing water, I cannot help but wonder what will happen to crops that have been exposed to sewage or chemicals, and the warehouses of products that have been without adequate temperature control for more than a week. In response to these types of questions, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued a notice regarding the safety of food products affected by hurricane Katrina.

The FDA notes that crops and grains stored in bulk are probably the food items most susceptible to standing flood waters. They may have been exposed to a variety of contaminants and should not enter the food supply. The FDA recommends destroying these items in such a way that there is no opportunity for cross-contamination of "clean" crops, and ensuring that contaminated crops and grains are not available for human or animal consumption. Similarly, fresh fruits and vegetables cannot be adequately cleaned of contaminants and may have started to spoil as a result of inadequate storage facilities. They, too, should be kept from the food supply.

If you were thinking that items in cans and bottles are probably okay to recondition, you would be wrong. The FDA makes the point that many of the screw caps or flip tops may have collected debris and sediment which cannot be adequately cleaned away, especially once they've had a chance to dry. Any food that has been packaged in these containers or in plastic, paper, or cardboard cannot be salvaged.

Finally, it appears the only items that may be permitted back into the food supply are those that have been hermetically sealed and have both a top and bottom double seam, such as a canned item. However, these come with many more terms and conditions which must be reviewed.

While the FDA notice is aimed at food manufacturers, warehouse managers, and food transporters, it is of interest and valuable to all of us. You can read the full FDA notice at cfsan.fda.gov.