Toxic chemicals, multiplying bacteria spark bushfire food safety warning

Food safety warning for people in bushfire affected areas

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Warning over spoiled and contaminated foods during bush fire emergency.

Warning over spoiled and contaminated foods during bush fire emergency.


Food safety experts issue urgent safety warning, as bushfires and power outages continue to affect vulnerable communities throughout Australia.


As bushfires and power outages continue to affect vulnerable communities throughout Australia, food safety experts have issued an urgent safety warning.

Many people have been contacting the Food Safety Information Council about what to do with food during the emergency.

Council spokeswoman Lydia Buchtmann said one of the dangers of a fire could be toxic fumes from burning materials and chemicals used to fight the fire could also be toxic while the heat could cause bacteria in food to multiply.

Here are some key food safety points after a fire:

  • Throw out any food that has been near a fire, including food in cans and jars even if it appears ok (this includes unopened containers as the seal may be broken or contaminants may fall into the container when opening).
  • Any raw food, or food in packaging such as cardboard, plastic wrap, screw-topped jars and bottles should also be thrown out
  • Throw out food from a refrigerator as the refrigerator seal isn't airtight, fumes can get inside
  • Wash cooking utensils exposed to fire-fighting chemicals in soapy hot water, then sanitise in one tablespoon of chlorine bleach per two litres of water and rinse.
  • When you dispose of food, wrap it in newspaper and place in the rubbish bin. A small volume of food may be safely buried.
  • Where larger quantities have to be disposed of your local government's environmental health officer should be contacted. Without correct disposal, fly breeding, animal and pest scavenging may result and increase the risk of the spread of infectious diseases.

If your power has gone out, your food will remain safe in your refrigerator for two hours. If it has been more than four hours, throw the food out.

Don't open the fridge door during the power cut, unless necessary.

The best option is to keep the refrigerated foods as cold as possible by not opening the door unless necessary to remove food to eat or check the temperature after two hours, or place items in the freezer.

If this is not possible:

  • Remove ice bricks from the freezer and place in an esky.
  • Remove all meats, poultry, dairy and potentially hazardous food (for example dips, pâté, ham, prepared and cooked food) from the refrigerator and place in an cooler with frozen bricks or gel packs.
  • Salted butter, margarine and hard cheeses will remain safe at room temperature.
  • Place the ice or ice bricks throughout the stored food to ensure an even temperature. Make sure the lid of the cooler has a good seal.
  • If the temperature of the food stored in an cooler or refrigerator reaches more than 5C for less than two hours you should find alternative refrigeration at less than 5C or, if possible, freeze or use immediately.
  • Food stored in a refrigerator or esky at more than 5C for four hours or more should be thrown out.
  • Freezers that are in good condition and operate at minus 15C or below can keep foods at safe temperatures for between one and two days. If the freezer door is kept shut, a full freezer can keep food chilled for up to 48 hours, while a half full freezer can be keep food chilled for 24 hours.
  • It is important that the doors of freezers are not opened unless necessary. Opening and closing the doors will reduce the time the contents will remain at safe temperatures.
  • Foods that have partly defrosted or defrosted but remain very cold (5C or less) can be refrozen.
  • If your food has been in a freezer where the temperature has reached more than 5C for more than two hours, but less than four hours, it should be consumed immediately.
  • Food stored in a freezer for more than four hours at more than 5C should be thrown out.

"Remember to throw out food that was being cooked when the power failed if cooking cannot be completed properly within two hours. If food is already properly cooked, eat it within two hours or throw it out," said Ms Buchtmann.