Food pantry safety during fire emergencies

When an emergency strikes, a food pantry needs a plan.

A structure engulfed in flames.
Photo: Pixabay.

This is part of a series on what a food pantry needs to do in an emergency. To read more about what food pantries should do in the event of flooding, read this article.

It is important for a food bank or food pantry to plan ahead for emergencies and natural disasters that may affect the safety of the food they distribute. These hazards may include chemical spills, fire, floods, tornadoes, and power outages. Having a written plan in place, helps train volunteers and staff in the event any of these emergencies occur. Consider getting hazard insurance that would protect your food supply from a wide range of exposures.

Many communities have emergency feeding organizations, which include hunger relief organizations, shelters and soup kitchens. These organizations offer a network of non-profits that could help to continue providing safe food to individuals and families until a given threat has been resolved. Planning for an emergency can mitigate negative impacts.

There are many ways the food at your pantry can be impacted by fire, according to the Food Safety and Inspection Service. Food is impacted by the heat generated from the fire, which can cause food containers to split or rupture. The break in the container allows foodborne illness pathogens to contaminate the food, leading to spoilage and illness. Heat from the fire can activate pathogens that could multiply and lead to foodborne illness. Harmful fumes could penetrate the porous materials of plastic, cardboard and plastic wrap. Therefore, any food product exposed to toxic fumes because of fire must be thrown away.

Toxic fumes can also penetrate through the seals of refrigerators and freezers, causing the food stored there to become contaminated. Chemicals used to fight fires cannot be removed or washed off food. Any food exposed to chemicals must be thrown away. Food stored at room temperature must be disposed of, such as fruits, vegetables, and food in porous containers such as cardboard, screw-top lid jars or plastic.

Canned goods and equipment involved in a pantry fire can be decontaminated or reconditioned. However, a strong detergent needs to be used during the washing. Michigan State University Extension recommends making a sanitizing solution of one tablespoon of unscented chlorine bleach to one gallon of warm water. The canned goods and equipment need to be in this solution for 15 minutes before air drying.

For more information on ways to make your pantry services safer, visit Michigan State University Extension's For Food Pantries website.

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