Nutrition Column – Food Safety After a Fire

This summer, the dangers of forest fires have been on the minds of all Westerners. Fires in a home, however, can start just about anywhere, from an overturned candle in the den to a grease fire in the kitchen. While food isn’t usually a top-of-the-mind item to try and save in the aftermath of a fire, people often try to save what they can-including food.

Just how safe is food that’s been through a fire? That depends on what the food has been exposed to and for how long. Food exposed to fire can be compromised by any of four factors: the heat of the fire, smoke fumes, chemicals used to fight the fire and any power outage that results from the fire.

  • Heat exposure: Food in cans or jars that have been exposed to the heat of a fire may appear to be fine, but the contents inside may not be edible or of high quality. Also, heat from a fire can activate food-spoilage bacteria, causing the cans or jars to split or rupture, resulting in unsafe food.
  • Smoke fumes: The toxic fumes that may be released from burning materials is one of the most dangerous elements of a fire. Smoke fumes can be hazardous and they can also contaminate food. If the fire has caused heavy smoke damage, it’s best to throw away foods stored in permeable packaging such as cardboard or plastic wrap. Also, discard any raw foods stored outside the refrigerator, such as potatoes or fruit that could have been contaminated by the fumes. Even food stored in a refrigerator or freezer can become contaminated by fumes because the seals on these appliances are not necessarily airtight. If food from your refrigerator or freezer has an off-flavor or odor when it is prepared, it should be discarded and not eaten.
  • Chemicals used to fight fires: The chemicals used to fight fires contain toxic materials that can contaminate food and cookware. While some of the chemicals may be listed as non-toxic to humans, they can be harmful if swallowed. These chemicals cannot be washed off the food. Foods that are exposed to fire-fighting chemicals should be thrown away. This includes food stored at room temperature, such as fruit and vegetables, as well as foods stored in permeable containers like cardboard and screw-topped jars and bottles. Canned goods and cookware exposed to chemicals can be decontaminated by washing the cans or cookware in hot, soapy water, then dipping in a bleach solution (1 teaspoon bleach per quart of water) for 15 minutes, rinsing in clear water and letting air dry.
  • Power outage: Although fumes pose a potential hazard to foods stored in a refrigerator or freezer, the most common concern is loss of electrical power during a fire or storm. If a power outage has occurred, keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible. Refrigerated items should be safe as long as the power is off no more than about four hours. A full freezer should keep foods safe for about two days; a half-full freezer, about one day. Keeping milk jugs filled with ice in a half-full freezer can help extend the length of time the freezer will stay cold without power. Food that was safe when it was originally frozen should still be safe if it contains ice crystals and/or if the freezer is 40 degrees F or less and has been at that temperature no longer than one or two days. These foods can be refrozen or cooked and eaten.

It’s wise to discard any perishable food that has been held at temperatures above 40 degrees F for more than two hours or any food that has an unusual odor, color or texture. Never taste food to determine its safety. If you have returned from being evacuated and are not sure if the power was shut off and then turned back on, check with your utility company. Also check for suspicious signs in your refrigerator and freezer, such as the presence of liquid or refrozen meat juices, soft or melted and refrozen ice cream, or unusual odors.

Remember that food unfit for human consumption is also unfit for pets. If in doubt, throw it out!