Is food safe after a fire?

October is Fire Safety Month

October is Fire Safety Month. A house fire can be the most terrifying and chaotic emergency that can happen to a family. Many times food is not necessarily thought of as a safety issue, but even after a little smoke damage, food can be compromised and become unsafe.

After a house fire, one must go through and inspect the home and contents after it is safe to do so. Not only will there be fire damage, but water, smoke, chemical (from firefighting) and heat damage. Toxic fumes can contaminate food items and household goods. How can you tell what can be salvaged in the kitchen? The first rule is: When in doubt, throw it out.

There are some guidelines for salvaging food after a fire:

  1. Throw out anything that has come in contact with the waters or the chemicals used in fighting the fire, including fresh produce, meat, poultry, fish, eggs, opened containers and packages, food packaged in cardboard, foil, paper, plastic, cloth and screw-topped jars and bottles, spices, extracts, staples held in canisters, and any foods stored outside the refrigerator that were exposed to smoke or fumes.
  2. Throw out raw food like potatoes or fruit if they are outside the refrigerator. They have been contaminated by the smoke or fumes.
  3. Throw out anything that was charred or near the fire. Heat damage may not be seen on the outside of canned goods, but the heat can re-cook the ingredients in the can causing harm.
  4. Throw out one time use plastic cups, plates and utensils. If you’re not sure they were damaged, toss them.
  5. Disinfect any cans that were not heat damaged and that are free from dents or rust. First scrub the can with detergent and then submerge it into a mixture of chlorine bleach and water. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends one cup of bleach to five gallons of water. Test the sanitizing solution strength with chlorine test strips to make sure it stays viable. When finished, make sure to label the can with an indelible marker.

One can’t be assured that foods held in the refrigerator or freezer are safe either. Sometimes seals on those appliances are not air-tight and can leak smoke inside to damage food. If the electricity is out, discard refrigerated meat, milk, eggs, seafood, cheese, leftovers or cookie dough if the temperature has reached 40 degrees Fahrenheit or higher for two or more hours. Anything thawed to 40 degrees F or more should also be thrown away, with the exception of bread or plain cake. Discard anything that is moldy or has an off appearance or smell. Ice should not be used. If frozen meats are partially thawed, but have been kept below 40 degrees F, and have no off odor, they can be cooked and eaten, or re-frozen. Any vegetables that still have ice crystals in them may also be cooked if there is no evidence of smoke damage. You must always remember, when in doubt, throw it out.

If you go through these steps after a fire, you may end up with food that can be salvaged. Please remember that if the food isn’t safe for you, it won’t be safe for your pet either. There are many chemicals that are unleashed during a fire which can harm us. Take time this October to learn more about fire safety so you hopefully won’t have to go through these steps of salvaging food.

Michigan State University Extension advises us to be educated on what we can do to keep ourselves safe. If you would like more information about food safety, contact your local MSU Extension office or call 888-MSUE4MI (888-678-3463).

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