Tornadoes, floods, power outages and refrigerator/freezer breakdowns are all potential disasters that can jeopardize food safety in a healthcare facility. Our primary role is to prepare food for the patients and residents in a safe manner to minimize the risks of food borne illness. Regular staff training is a key component in preparing for any type of disaster. It is also important to have a list of organizations and vendors that agree to aid in case of an emergency.
If power is lost during a disaster, the first major concern is how long food can be safely stored in the refrigerator or freezer. Make sure to group food together in the freezer to help it stay colder for a longer period. Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible. A refrigerator will keep food at a safe temperature for about 4 hours if the door is left closed. A freezer will hold food for 48 hours if full and 24 hours if half full. Food can safely be re-frozen if it contains ice crystals or is at or below 41 degrees F. Make sure to use a thermometer to check food temperatures. Refrigerated food should be at or below 41 degrees F to be considered safe to consume. Refrigerated foods such as meat, poultry, fish, soft cheeses, milk, eggs, leftovers and deli items must be discarded after 4 hours.
There should be an emergency menu written in case of a disaster. The amount of food and supplies to have on hand should be based on the facility location and characteristics of the facility. Special diets such as diabetic or low sodium may need to be simplified or altered during an emergency. Mechanically altered diets will still need to be followed. To prepare puree foods an eggbeater or battery-operated mixer can be used. An emergency supply of canned pureed foods should also be kept on hand. For mechanical soft foods, plan menu items that are easy to chew or can be spread easily. A hand grinder can be used to properly grind foods.
If the power is out, plan to use perishable foods at the first or second meal, frozen foods next and then shelf stable products. Make sure to rotate emergency supplies in order to maintain quality and freshness. Be sure to observe expiration or “use by” dates on food items. The ability to have utilities and safe water allows the staff to be able to cook normally and provide more variety. Without utilities, the menu may be more limited. In case of no power items such as canned tuna, chicken, ham, chili and ravioli may need to be served without warming. Always have at least one manual can opener on hand. Other items such as protein or fruit bars, dry cereal or granola, peanut butter, dried fruit, canned juices, instant drinks, ready to eat puddings, gelatin, chips, fruits and vegetables may need to be served. Make sure there is an adequate inventory of paper products, supplies and bottled water. Bottled water can be mixed with non-fat dry milk powder and can also be used to make instant coffee or tea for residents.
Disasters can be a major disruption to our daily lives, but proper planning can make all the difference. Most importantly during any kind of disaster it is important to remain calm for the sake of the patients, residents, families and staff.
Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. https://www.cms.gov/Medicare/Provider-Enrollment-and-Certification/SurveyCertEmergPrep/index
Department of Homeland Security. https://www.ready.gov/food
United States Department of Agriculture. Food Safety and Inspection Service https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/emergency-preparedness/a-consumers-guide-to-food-safety-severe-storms-and-hurricanes/