CSU: Food safety tips following an evacuation

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Colorado State University food safety experts say anyone returning home after being evacuated from a wildfire should pay particular attention to their kitchen.

“One of most critical areas needing to be cleaned after a fire or wildfire evacuation is the home kitchen, since many foods may have spoiled without refrigeration or been damaged from exposure to heat or smoke,” said Marisa Bunning, assistant professor and extension specialist in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition.

Bunning recommends that people returning home have the following supplies with them to clean their kitchen:
• Potable water for drinking and cleaning if availability and quality of water at the home is uncertain.
• Baking soda
• Dish soap
• Rubber gloves or disposable gloves to wear while cleaning out refrigerators and freezers
• Paper towels for cleaning
• Heavy-duty trash bags
• Safety masks in case of a strong smoke odor or smoke and ash particulates in the air
• Camera to document contents of refrigerators and freezers and other areas of the home

The best advice is: When in doubt, throw it out. Perishable foods kept at room temperature provide an environment well-suited for rapid growth of microorganisms – including types that cause food-borne illness. Removing those spoiled food items and properly cleaning interior surfaces of the refrigerator and freezer can be a challenge, and, depending upon the damage, some refrigerators or freezers may need to be replaced.

If cleaning is necessary, Bunning recommends:

• Gathering spoiled food in heavy-duty trash bags and discarding it. Don’t overfill bags to prevent leakage. The rule of thumb is refrigerated food items can last about four hours without power. A full freezer should keep foods safe for about 48 hours and a half-full freezer for about 24 hours.
• Liquid residues may have dried in hard-to-reach areas of refrigerator and freezer shelving. If shelves and drawers are removable, take them out and immerse them in water and soap.
• Clean inside surfaces of the freezer or refrigerator with a solution of dish soap in water. To remove odors, scrub the surfaces with a mixture of two tablespoons of baking soda dissolved in one quart of warm water. Activated charcoal, available from aquarium or garden supply stores, placed in a shallow container inside the refrigerator also may help remove odors.

Gardeners should also rinse herbs and garden produce very well under running water to remove ash. If the produce or herbs have been exposed to fire retardant, they should be thrown away.

Water samples may be tested for safety at various labs including CSU’s Environmental Quality Laboratory. For more information, visit www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/emergency/food_safety.html.

Larimer County and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment have also put together a tips sheet on dealing with debris from a wildfire, available at larimer.org/highparkfire/CDPHE_Fire_Guidance.pdf