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Food Safety During an Emergency

Baltimore County Department of Health
6401 York Road, Third Floor
Baltimore, Maryland 21212-2130  

Phone: 410-887-BCHD (2243)
TTY users call via Maryland Relay 7-1-1

Since disasters can strike at any time, you should have at least a three-day supply of non-perishable food on hand. The following information on food safety could be helpful during an emergency:

In addition, in the event of a disaster it is important to include foods that require shorter preparation and cooking times, and little or no water.

Helpful Hint: The easiest way to accumulate an emergency food supply is to increase the amount of basic foods normally kept on your shelves.

Examples of Emergency Food

  • Food that does not require refrigeration
  • Ready-to-Eat canned meats, fruits, vegetables and cereal (instant and dry)
  • Soups (canned or dried soups in cups)
  • Smoked or dried meats like beef jerky
  • Dried fruits
  • Canned milk and juices
  • Staples (sugar, salt, pepper)
  • High Energy Foods (peanut butter, jelly, nuts, granola bars)
  • Cookies, candy and other snacks
  • Foods for infants, elderly, pets and individuals on special diets

Other Helpful Supplies

  • Disposable plates, cups, tableware, plastic bags, paper towels
  • Can opener, pocket knife, other utensils
  • Several cans of Sterno and matches to heat food
  • Charcoal for outdoor cooking
  • Cookware

Guidelines for Rotating Your Emergency Supplies

Use Within Six Months:

  • Powdered boxed milk
  • Dried fruit in metal containers
  • Dry, crisp crackers in metal containers
  • Potatoes

Use Within One Year:

  • Canned condensed meat and vegetable soups
  • Canned fruits, fruit juices and vegetables
  • Ready-to-eat cereals and uncooked instant cereals
  • Peanut butter
  • Jelly
  • Hard candy and canned nuts

May be Stored Indefinitely if Stored in Proper Containers and Conditions:

  • Wheat
  • Dried corn
  • Soybeans
  • Instant coffee, tea and cocoa
  • Salt
  • Non-carbonated soft drinks
  • White rice
  • Bouillon products
  • Dry pasta

Food Safety for Disasters and Power Outages

It is extremely important to evaluate the safety of refrigerated and frozen foods in your home before, during and after disasters and power outages. You should not eat food that has come into contact with floodwater or has not been kept at safe temperatures.

If you have received a notice of a power outage, you should take the following precautions:

  • Turn the refrigerator or freezer to its highest setting. (The colder the food, the more slowly it warms up.)
  • Plan ahead for ice to keep the food cold. (Keep cold packs available for use in emergency.) They will help to keep the refrigerated food cold longer.
  • Find out if your gas or electric company will give you dry ice. (If not make arrangements to buy your own dry ice.) Remember to handle this product carefully.

During a power outage, the following measures will help keep food safe:

  • Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed. Do not open the doors more than necessary. A full freezer unit will stay at freezing temperatures for about two days. If left closed, a half full freezer will stay cold for about one day.
  • Cover refrigeration equipment with blankets or sleeping bags to keep in the cold. 
  • Use blocks or bags of ice on a bottom shelf of the refrigerator to keep items cool. Refrigerated food will normally remain cold from four to six hours depending on the room temperature and how many times the door is opened.
  • Pack milk, other dairy products, meat, fish, eggs, and leftovers in a cooler surrounded by ice. (Inexpensive Styrofoam coolers can be used for this purpose.)
  • Purchase a thermometer to periodically check the temperature of your food right before you cook or eat it.
  • Throw away any food that has a temperature of more than 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Unsafe Food: When in Doubt, Throw it Out!

Unsafe foods should be thrown away to prevent people from eating it.

The following are examples of food that should be thrown away if they have been kept above 40 degrees Fahrenheit for more than two hours:

  • Any product that requires refrigeration after opening (Read the Labels)
  • Any moldy products
  • Any leftovers
  • Any foods exposed to floodwaters or sewage
  • Cardboard-boxed food even if the contents seem dry
  • Cans that are dented, leaking, bulging or rusted
  • Casseroles, stews or soups
  • Cooked pasta, potato, rice, and salads using these products
  • Cookie dough
  • Cream-filled pastries, custards, chiffon or cheese pies
  • Fresh eggs and egg substitutes
  • Food containers with screw-caps, snap-lids, crimped caps (soda bottles), twist caps, or flip tops because they can not be disinfected.
  • Meat-topped pizza and lunch meats
  • Milk, cream, yogurt and soft cheese, such as feta and brie
  • Home canned food
  • Gravies
  • Thawed foods that are above 40 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Thawed foods that have changed color or have bad odors
  • Thawed vegetables, fish and shellfish, ice cream, yogurt and frozen dinners

Note: Do not rely on smell or appearance of a food to determine if it is safe to eat.

Does Sell-By Date Mean Food Is Unsafe?

When is food still safe to eat? Watch Time to Toss? Food Expiration Labels Made Easy—a video from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Cleaning and Sanitizing Practices

Cans of Food

  • Take the labels off of contaminated cans and use a permanent marker to identify the contents.
  • Wash the cans with a strong detergent and uncontaminated water. Make sure that you remove any dirt or silt. 
  • Thoroughly rinse the containers and let them air dry.
  • Immerse the cleaned, rinsed cans in a warm solution of chlorine for two minutes. (Use two tablespoons of household bleach per gallon of water.) Helpful Hint: The water should be 75 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Disinfectants are not effective if the cans are not clean.
  • Change the solution whenever it becomes dirty.
  • Air-dry the cans.
  • Use the cans as soon as possible because they may rust.

Reminder: Don't forget to use gloves—chlorine can irritate your hands.

Dishes and Utensils

  • Only use hot, soapy, uncontaminated water to wash all of the dishes and utensils. Make sure that you remove all of the dirt.
  • Dishes with cracks and items with damaged surfaces should be thrown away.
  • Pot, pans and utensils can be sanitized by putting them in boiling water for 10 minutes or by immersing them in a bleach solution.
  • Iron pots and pans should be scoured with steel wool to remove any rust before washing and sanitizing.

Kitchen Surfaces

  • All food preparation and servicing surfaces should be cleaned and sanitized before you use them.
  • After thoroughly washing and rinsing surfaces with a detergent and warm water, apply a sanitizer with a clean cloth.
    • You can make a sanitizing solution by adding a tablespoon of household bleach to one gallon of uncontaminated water.
    • Let the surfaces air-dry.
    • Do not attempt to clean and sanitize items such as wooden spoons, wooden cutting boards, baby bottle nipples, pacifiers, and disposable tableware and plates. These items should be thrown away and replaced.

Additional Resources

To learn more about food safety during an emergency, visit the following websites:

Revised September 12, 2016         


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