FAQ: Food Safety
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I Want Information on Food Safety
Q: Can I eat or sell fruits and vegetables that have been flooded?
HARVESTING DECISIONS FOR FLOODED CROPS
Crops intended for human consumption are considered contaminated if they have been covered with flood waters from rivers, creeks or streams. Growers should distinguish between rainwater that accumulates on a field because of excessive rainfall versus fields covered by flood waters from risen rivers, creeks or streams. Flood waters can carry potential contaminants from off-site sources. Fields covered by flood waters are distinctly different from fields where rainwater has accumulated in low areas. Standing waters often occur after heavy rain.
The present concern is for crops which have been in direct contact with flood waters from risen rivers, creeks or streams which may be contaminated with runoff such as human or animal waste, petroleum products, pesticides or industrial chemicals.
If the crop is in standing water from accumulated rainwater, not flooding from rivers or streams, keep in mind that most fruits and vegetables are subject to damage or decay if they are flooded for more than a couple days. In that case, the crop will either be in a state of deterioration, or it will not cure and store properly. In effect, these conditions will render most of the flood-affected crop unharvestable or unmarketable.
Before cleaning up or destroying crops in flooded fields, check with your crop insurance and/or their local Farm Services Agency (FSA) representatives regarding exact documentation to certify losses, procedures for initiating claims, possible financial assistance.
If you have questions, contact your county extension agent, your local FSA or crop insurance representatives, or the Food and Drug Protection Division of NCDA&CS at 919-733-7366.
The federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises that certain foods exposed to flood waters, and perishable foods that are not adequately refrigerated, are adulterated and should not enter the human food supply. In addition, crops and other food commodities exposed to flood waters would not be acceptable for use in animal feed. FDA is also providing guidance in determining when food products can be reconditioned for future use. The information follows.
Foods that Should Be Destroyed
Crops. If the edible portion of a crop is exposed to flood waters, it is considered adulterated and should not enter human food channels. There is no practical method of reconditioning the edible portion of a crop that will provide a reasonable assurance of human food safety. Therefore, the FDA recommends that these crops be disposed of in a manner that ensures they are kept separate from crops that have not been flood damaged to avoid adulterating “clean” crops.
Disposition of crops in proximity to, or exposed to a lesser degree of flooding, where the edible portion of the crop has NOT come in contact with flood waters, may need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Factors to consider in the evaluation include:
- What is the source of flood waters and are there potential upstream contributors of human pathogens and/or chemical contaminants?
- Type of crop and stage of growth, e.g., is the edible portion of the crop developing? How far above the ground does the lowest edible portion grow?
- Were conditions such that the crop may have been exposed to prolonged periods of moisture and stress which could foster fungal growth, and possibly, development of mycotoxins?
Grains and similar products stored in bulk can also be damaged by flood waters. These flood damaged products should not be used for human and animal food.
Fresh Fruits and Vegetables. Fresh fruits and vegetables that have been inundated by flood waters cannot be adequately cleaned and should be destroyed. Fresh fruits and vegetables that have begun to spoil due to the lack of refrigeration should also be destroyed. These food items may be considered for diversion to animal feed under certain circumstances.
Some articles that may be helpful:
A 2020 article from NC Extension on flooded gardens: https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/managing-the-impact-of-floodwater-on-soil-and-produce-in-vegetable-gardens
A 2018 article from our NC Extension Food Safety specialists regarding flooded crops for consumption: https://intranet.ces.ncsu.edu/2018/09/information-regarding-flooded-produce/
Sue Colucci, area extension agent, has also posted some important information concerning flooded crops on her blog at http://wncveggies.blogspot.com/2009/09/flooding.html.
Jeanine Davis, NC Alternative Crops and Organics Program, Department of Horticultural Science, NC State University. (updated 6/17/2022)