On Thursday, March 10, 2011, what was already Friday in Japan, the country experienced an 8.9 magnitude earthquake, reported by Japan’s Meteorological Agency to be one of the strongest earthquakes recorded in the nation’s history. In addition to dozens of aftershocks that rattled cities and villages hundreds of miles from the epicenter, the massive earthquake triggered tsunami waves that struck Japan’s eastern coastline killing hundreds.

Tsunami warnings and advisories were subsequently issued for Hawaii and states along the western coast of the United States. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) also responded to the potential threat of a tsunami by issuing recommendations to residents regarding proper food safety in order to minimize the potential for foodborne illnesses due to flooding or power outages.

flood lower pixel.pngFSIS Administrator Al Almanza noted, “Possible flood waters and related disruptions to power can have a serious impact on food safety and could become a critical public health issue.” He added, “With a little bit of advance planning, people can make sure they have access to safe food and water even in the aftermath of a severe event.”

Although large waves hit the shores of Hawaii today in the early morning hours, it has been reported that there has only been minor damage. However, it is still important for the public to be aware of the steps to follow before, during, and after a weather emergency.

Keeping a thermometer in your refrigerator and freezer to ensure that they remain at the proper temperatures, storing food on shelves that will be safely out of the way of contaminated water in case of flooding, freezing refrigerated items such as meat, poultry, and milk to keep them at a safe temperature longer, and having coolers on hand along with ice or freezer packs to store refrigerated food in the event of a power outage were among the food safety tips to follow before a weather emergency suggested by FSIS.

During an emergency, the agency recommends using bottled water that has not been exposed to flood waters, keeping refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to maintain the cold temperature, and discarding refrigerated perishable food such as meat, poultry, fish, soft cheeses, milk, eggs, leftovers and deli items after 4 hours without power.

In addition, the agency offered its recommendations for steps to follow after a weather emergency. For example, FSIS suggests thoroughly washing all metal pans, ceramic dishes and utensils that came in contact with flood water with hot soapy water and sanitizing by boiling them in clean water and discarding any food that is not in a waterproof container if there is any chance that it has come into contact with flood water.

Importantly, FSIS maintains the policy, “When in doubt, throw it out!” Never taste food to determine its safety. If you are unsure whether the food has been contaminated or did not remain at the proper temperature, just get rid of it.

FSIS urges all consumers to be mindful of their health and safety in the event of future weather emergencies and to take these necessary precautions to reduce the risk of foodborne illness.

Our hearts go out to the victims of this terrible disaster.   

For additional information on Emergency Preparedness, visit: www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/ Emergency_Preparedness_Fact_Sheets/index.asp