In 2018, the U.S. experienced record heat waves, severe snow storms, deadly wildfires, and two devastating hurricanes, with weather disaster costs expected to top $155 billion when final figures are in.
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Not only are many of these events dangerous and destructive, but they can cause power outages, structural damage, and other problems for those in the food service and retail industries.
Ajai V. Ammachathram, food and beverage management extension specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, comments that the safety and security of guests/customers and staff should be the number one priority, so in the event of extreme weather, establishments need to stop serving/selling and get customers and staff to safety wherever it may be. “Make sure if you are expecting incoming orders to notify the supplier of your situation, as the last thing you need is more stock to show-up at your door,” he adds.
Chris Boyles, vice president of The Steritech Institute, is responsible for the consulting, training, and quality assurance functions within Steritech’s brand standards business, managing the technical design and implementation of food safety for major brands across the convenience, restaurant, food retail, food service, and contract dining segments. He says that every business needs a written crisis management plan that covers what to do when extreme weather events happen.
“A comprehensive written plan will include important internal contact names and numbers to ensure everyone is communicating smoothly,” he says. “It should also include external contacts who can assist, such as emergency services, utilities, the local health department, suppliers for bottled water or dry ice, and remediation cleaning services in cases of extraordinary contamination (e.g. flooding).”
Janilyn Hutchings, a certified food safety professional with StateFoodSafety, says when extreme weather hits, the most important thing one can do to keep food safe is keep it hot or cold.
“If there’s a power outage, it’s best to keep all refrigerators and freezers closed,” she says. “A closed refrigerator will maintain 41 degrees Fahrenheit or below for only a few hours during a power loss while freezers will keep cold for about 48 hours as long as they are kept closed.”
Having a backup generator to keep refrigerators, ovens, stoves, grill tops, heat lamps, and warmers in working condition is a savvy move.
Ideally, companies would have a way to remotely monitor the temperature of food in cold storage. If not, a staff member will have to determine the effects when they can safely return to the facility.
In situations where there is time to prepare, such as a hurricane, Boyles notes food companies may be able to prepare for extended power outages by arranging for alternate food cooling and storage. While refrigerated storage and frozen backup are optimal, it may be difficult to obtain during emergencies and he suggests preordering dry ice.
Angalena Malavenda, a specialist with WebstaurantStore, advises food service professionals should have proper shelving to keep food and dry goods off of the ground in the event of flooding.
“The health department is requiring many industries to have raised shelves with solid bottoms instead of open bottoms to store food,” she says. “Solid shelving helps to keep water, dust, and other splatters off of stored foods.”
Once an area is confirmed safe, workers can return to check the damage and assess the food for integrity. The FDA provides some guidelines for the food industry on what to do after a storm.
“Following a power outage, discard any ‘time/temperature controlled for safety’ foods that have been above 41 degrees Fahrenheit for two or more hours,” Boyles says. “That includes meats, poultry, fish, eggs, cheese, dairy-containing products, cut tomatoes, cut melons, cut leafy greens, sprouts, etc.”
Extreme weather of many types, even just heavy rains, can also bring with them increased pest activity—even to facilities that have not previously experienced issues in the past.
“Pests can pose an imminent risk to food safety, so after any extreme weather event, once your facility has been deemed safe, ensure that you do a thorough inspection of your facility’s interior and exterior to inspect for damage that could allow for pest entry, clean away debris on the exterior (garbage/trash, leaf piles, fallen trees, etc.), and remove any flood-soaked materials from the interior (carpeting, cardboard, etc.),” Boyles says.
In the case of flooding, all food that contacted the water must be discarded. It may be possible to disinfect some cans if the can integrity is still intact, but everything else affected must go.
Hutchings says to check for dents and bulging cans, which could be signs they are contaminated with botulism.
“Flood waters are filthy with sewage and chemicals and could also contain pests, such as rodents, snakes, and ants,” Boyles adds. “And if significant time has passed, there may be air quality risks from mold and mildew.”
If the facility is inoperable after the extreme weather, consider donating unspoiled food which is at risk of going bad.
In any situation, food operators should always follow the direction of local public health authorities. These teams are the most up-to-date on the situation and coordinate with other authorities to ensure the safety and welfare of everyone.