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Floods and food safety

Floodwater can be contaminated with harmful microorganisms and poisons from sewage, animals, agricultural and industrial waste, and other substances that can cause illness. Any food, packaging, surfaces and cooking utensils that have come into contact with floodwater might be contaminated and unsafe. Water supplies might also be unsafe. There could also be a power outage with a flood, which could affect food refrigeration and cooking.

Here are some tips to help you make sure your food will be safe to eat if there is a flood.

Preparing at home

If you know a flood could be coming and you are in an area that could be affected:

  • Move food supplies and equipment to another area, away from the predicted flooding. 
  • Store food on shelves and in containers that will be safely out of the way of flood water.  
  • Use ice bricks, ice, or insulated bags and containers to keep cold food cold if the power goes out. 
  • Have some essential supplies handy like bottled water, long-life foods, bleach and hand sanitiser - see food safety in an emergency.

After a flood

To be sure your food is safe to eat, you need to make sure it has not been contaminated (i.e. has not come in contact with flood water) and that it's been kept at a safe temperature, especially for foods that need to be kept cold. You also need to make sure all the things used for storing, cooking and eating food are safe before you use them again. 

Throw out any unsafe food

You will need to throw out any food that could be unsafe (see below). Contaminated floodwater may have got into food, packaging and storage equipment. Do not taste or cook flood-affected food - even food that looks or smells safe could be dangerous.

Throw out:

  • any food, packaged or unpackaged, that has been in contact with flood water, including
    • foods in refrigerators or freezers, because the seals are not water tight
    • any cans that are dented, swollen or damaged
  • any food that has an unusual smell, texture or colour
  • any packaging that has contacted flood water or is punctured, torn, swollen, rusted or damaged
  • if the power is out:
    • any refrigerated food that has not been kept cold - it can be unsafe once it's been at room temperature for 4 hours
    • any food that was being cooked and did not cook all the way through
  • anything else you are not sure is safe - when in doubt, throw it out.

Make sure affected food is separated from other food, and safely thrown away where consumers or passers-by can not collect it. Councils might organise special collections. 

Can any food be kept?

If you have any doubts about the food, throw it out. Some cans and retort pouches might be able to be saved if they have not touched flood water and look undamaged. They will need to be cleaned and surface sanitised - for example by removing the label, washing the can thoroughly, immersing it in bleach for 1 minute, rinsing it in clean water and then relabelling with a marker. 

NOTE for food businesses: salvaging cans and pouches for sale is not recommended for food businesses. Food must not be relabelled unless the business has permission from the relevant food regulator. 

Clean and sanitise surfaces, equipment and utensils 

Check pots, pans, dishes, cutlery and kitchen equipment that might have been in contact with floodwater, and:  

  • Throw away the following items, as they cannot be properly sanitised:
    • any damaged or cracked items
    • items made from porous material (e.g. wood, plastic, rubber) including chopping boards
  • Wash utensils and surfaces:
    • use hot, soapy, drinking-quality water
    • take apart and clean kitchen equipment designed to be taken apart
    • rinse in clean, hot water
  • Sanitise:
    • most dishwashers can sanitise eating and cooking utensils (we recommend using the longest hottest cycle)
    • for silverware, metal utensils, pots, pans and disassembled kitchen equipment - immerse items for 10 minutes in boiling water
    • for glass, porcelain, china and enamel-ware dishes - immerse items for 10 minutes in a disinfecting solution of 1 tablespoon of chlorine bleach per 2 litres of hot water, then rinse
  • Dry items by allowing them to air dry, rather than using towels that might be contaminated. 
  • Clean cupboards and counters with hot soapy water, then rinse with a chlorine bleach solution.  Look out for mould on timber and porous building materials and re-treat surfaces if necessary.

Water safety

In a flood, the tap water and private water supplies (e.g. tanks, wells and bores) might not be safe to drink or use for cooking and cleaning.

  • Check for public announcements to know if tap water is safe to consume or use, such as for washing utensils or fresh produce. 
  • Private water supplies should be tested before using - contact your local council. 
  • If the water is unsafe:
    • use bottled or boiled water for washing hands, utensils and surfaces; for cooking or preparing food; and for making ice
    • if you need to boil water: bring it to a rolling boil with an automatic kettle or on the stove, allow it to cool and store it in the refrigerator in a clean, lidded container
    • you may need to treat water with chlorine or iodine - follow the instructions on the bottle or packet
    • use hand sanitiser for your hands if clean water and soap are not available.

Food businesses

  • Businesses must not sell any food that is unsafe or unsuitable. 
  • Use only drinking-quality (potable) water for activities on food premises. 
  • Contact your food regulatory agency for assistance before re-opening your business. 
Page last updated 7 December 2023