Flooding is defined by the FDA as “the flowing or overflowing of a field with water outside a grower’s control.” Since chemical as well as microbial contamination is present in flood waters, there is no way to process fruits and vegetables that are contacted to make them safe again for consumption. If the crop field is flooded, but the water level is not high enough to touch the edible portion, a risk assessment may determine whether the product is likely contaminated or may be harvested. This includes crops that are still standing after the flood (e.g., tomato, bell pepper or eggplant) where the fruit is above the water level and too high for flood water to splash onto the product. Additionally, if the edible portion of the crop has not developed yet, the crop may be safe for future harvest.
UGA Extension specialists prepared a quick guide for Extension agents and growers to properly handle Hurricane Michael as it approaches:
Before an anticipated flood event:
- Take inventory of and secure any chemicals and hazardous chemicals (e.g., herbicides, insecticides and fungicides).
- Move any livestock, equipment or tools to elevated areas, preferably areas with no risk of flooding.
- Use sand bags, berms or ditches and crosscuts to divert water around greenhouses, packinghouses, barns and produce fields.
- Make copies of important documents and ensure that documents are stored in a secure, waterproof location, or take them with you in the event of evacuation.
After a flood event:
- Contact your insurance agency before any clean-up activities, including salvaging crop fields where a portion of the produce was not contacted by flood water.
- Clearly identify the highest point of flood water to make sure that contaminated product is not unintentionally mixed with “clean” product.
- Harvest “clean” produce prior to handling nonharvestable produce to avoid cross-contamination of your produce.
- If well heads were submerged, do not wash any harvested produce to avoid contamination. Test the water before any use.
- Boil all water for personal consumption until test results indicate that no detectable generic Escherichia coli are present.
- Take pictures of all damage immediately in order to send evidence to insurance agencies.
- Allow a 60-day interval between flooding and replanting of previously flooded fields to allow for human pathogens to die off. Chemical hazards may still be present in previously flooded soils, so chemical and microbial soil testing should be considered prior to replanting.
- Contact your UGA Extension agent if you are unsure whether produce can be safely harvested.