Written by: John Porter, WV Garden Guru
Many of us watched in horror as flood waters ravaged communities around West Virginia over the last week or so. The flooding has been devastating with lives lost, homes lost and memories washed away. This flood will have an effect on many of our communities for years to come.
As the waters recede and clean-up efforts continue, there’s one area of concern that many may not have thought of: the safety of garden produce in flooded areas.
In West Virginia, many of our farms and gardens sit along streams, where they feed from the rich, fertile bottomlands. This means that there is often flooding that affects anything that grows.
In the areas most affected, it is likely that nearly all plants in gardens and fields washed away completely. In areas where standing water covered — but did not wash away — the produce, there is concern for food safety.
Flood waters can carry all manner of pathogens and contaminants — which is one reason officials urged anyone in the flooded areas as well as those who were volunteering to get tetanus shots. Pathogens that cause foodborne illnesses are no different.
Even if the water is just pooling in place and not coming from a stream, or if you think the area up-stream is free of contamination, there is still concern. Aside from pathogens, any up-stream contamination in chemical form can also pose a safety risk.
Food safety risks are a concern for all individuals, but are especially worrisome for those with compromised immune systems, the elderly, pregnant women and young children.
The following recommendations are for salvaging produce affected by floodwaters in home gardens. For farmers affected by flooding in crop fields, produce should not be harvested from flooded fields and sold. The risk and liability is too high. In many instances, farm insurance or federal assistance can help cover crop losses.
First, discard any crop plants that are consumed raw, such as leafy greens. There is no way to properly clean the produce and remove all of the contamination. These plants should be removed from the garden. Any soft fruits, such as berries or tomatoes should be discarded if they cannot be cooked or if you think there could be chemical contamination.
Produce that was covered or touched by flood water should be discarded. If the actual edible portion of the plant was not touched by flood water, you may be able to harvest it and cook it for consumption. Thorough cooking can destroy aerobic foodborne pathogens, so you can sometimes salvage produce items from the home garden that can be cooked. Cooking does not destroy chemical or industrial contaminants. If you feel that there could be such contamination in the water, all produce should be discarded and plants destroyed.
Potential contamination can also depend on how mature the plant is at the time of flooding and what part of the plant is covered by floodwater. For example, if a tomato plant is covered by floodwater but that tomato plant doesn’t currently have tomatoes on it, future tomatoes growing on that plant could be considered safe.
This is especially true if the flowers that produce those tomatoes appear after the flood. One good approach would be to remove all flowers and fruits after the flood and allow new ones to develop.
You can also consider produce that hasn’t been touched directly by floodwater to be safe. For example, if you have pole beans and there is floodwater at the base of the plant but not touching the beans, the beans have relatively low risk for contamination.
Contamination can persist for 90 days or more, so any crop that comes in contact with soil should not be consumed. Likewise, any root crops such as potatoes that would mature any sooner than four months after flooding should not be consumed. Even if they mature past this time, they should be completely peeled and cooked before consumption.
Any produce that is salvaged from flooded garden areas should be completely washed with cold tap water. Do not use soap, bleach or any other chemical. Any produce item that is contaminated and not safe cannot be made safe by any type of processing or canning and those items should not be used.
And remember, when in doubt, don’t risk it. If you are unsure about the safety about any garden produce, remove and destroy all plants. At this point, it is possible to replant any summer or fall crop that will not come in direct contact with the soil.
Any farmer or producer who has sustained losses due to recent floods should reach out to their county extension agents. WVU Extension may be able to provide volunteers to assist with farm clean up, mending fences, basic farm repairs and more.
Extension agents can also provide official damage assessments for crops, livestock, structures and equipment for use in insurance claims and disaster relief claims. To find contact information for your county extension office, visit ext.wvu.edu/county_offices.
John Porter is the WVU Extension agent for Agriculture and Natural Resources in Kanawha County. His work centers on developing opportunities for youth and adults to enjoy gardening and agriculture in the state’s most urban county.