As Americans reel from fires and floods food safety is a major risk upon return to their homes

by KENNETH KING, PUBLIC AFFAIRS SPECIALIST, FOOD SAFETY EDUCATION STAFF, USDA

The United States was impacted by more than 52,000 wildfires in 2020. Not only are wildfires damaging to homes, wildlife and health, they also pose risks to food and cookware. Here are some tips to prevent foodborne illness before and after a wildfire. Please note, make sure you are at a safe distance from the fire and have time to prepare before packing food. If feasible, evacuate before being told to do so.   

Evacuating and transporting food

FSIS recommends having a cooler and extra ice or frozen bottles of water on hand in case of an emergency. There should be enough ice to keep the food at 40 F or below. Bring an appliance thermometer for the cooler. Refrigerated foods should be placed into the cooler last before evacuating the home. Place raw meat and poultry at the bottom of the cooler to avoid cross contamination. If possible, wrap them in plastic.

Risk of flames and fumes

Stay informed of the wildfires in your area. Refrain from returning home until given permission by authorities.  Foods exposed to flames or fumes can be contaminated or experience bacterial growth and should be discarded. Chemical fumes can penetrate through packaging (canned goods, plastic, etc.), and foods in refrigerators and freezers are susceptible to contamination since the refrigerator doors aren’t airtight.

Lastly, fire dispersing chemicals can contaminate foods. Discard any foods exposed to these chemicals. However, cookware can be decontaminated by following these steps:

  • Wash contaminated cookware with hot soapy water.
  • Submerge items into bleach solution.
    • Use 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water.
  • Let soak for 15 minutes.

Visit Keeping Food Safe During an Emergency to learn more.

Caution – never taste food to determine its safety. When in doubt, throw it out!

For more questions about food safety, contact the USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) to talk to a food safety expert or chat live at ask.usda.gov from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday.

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