All year-round, and more frequently throughout the holiday season, food pantries actively seek food donations to feed people in need. Unfortunately, the quality of food donations coupled with the way this food is handled can pose major food safety concerns.
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In a recent paper published by the Journal of Food Protection, researchers from North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill analyzed food safety practices at over 100 nonprofit food pantries in North Carolina. While nearly all pantries succeeded at limiting opportunities for cross-contamination and providing adequate handwashing facilities, their research also highlighted a lack of consistent training for volunteers, regularly receiving food from unknown sources, and improperly repackaging foods.
Ben Chapman, PhD, an associate professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University, points out that the study revealed food pantries linked to large food bank organizations had more formal education and resources for volunteers than at smaller pantries where volunteers lacked regular training.
According to the study, approximately 15 percent of the foods brought into the pantries were from unknown sources, such as homemade goods that were never inspected or knowingly cooked to food safety standards. These unknown sources of food have the potential to endanger vulnerable or high-risk individuals, which make up a large portion of people who receive food from shelters. These high-risk individuals include children, the elderly, and those who are sick and have weakened immune systems from medical conditions or being malnourished.
“In an emergency food situation, pantries don’t want to turn away food but on the other side the people accessing this food are in our most vulnerable populations so it’s even more paramount that food safety is focused on for them,” Dr. Chapman said.
The study also found that entry-level volunteers at some food pantries repackage large amounts of food donations into meals, increasing the risk of cross-contamination and the spread of pathogens.
“I would say those pantries have potential to be riskier than a pantry that is only handling packaged foods,” Dr. Chapman said. This issue also occurs earlier in the supply chain at reclamation centers of large retail chains that collect bulk donations of food for pantries.
At warehouse reclamation centers, companies invite volunteers to repackage donated food into consumer-sized packages before forwarding them to food pantries. “These packaged goods are produced by people who may not follow principles concerning allergens, importance of labeling, food protection, or employee hygiene,” says Joe Corby, senior advisor at the Association of Food & Drug Officials (AFDO).
Currently AFDO is working with Feeding America and other groups throughout the country to develop food safety guidelines for reclamation centers that produce bulk packages of food. AFDO recently added food sorting guidelines about sanitation and health principles to their updated salvage guide with detailed pictures depicting acceptable items versus damaged products.
“It’s important to be able to show volunteers pictures of these things so they understand what exposure of the product to outside elements looks like. There’s always an additional strength in training people face to face as oppose to just sending guidelines to them,” Corby says.
So how can food pantries improve their food safety practices?
By appointing a few highly proficient volunteers who can cite formal procedures and ensure that practices, polices, and procedures are all up to date, pantries can maintain organization and efficiency. Knowledgeable volunteers should consistently check that refrigerated food is stored at proper temperatures and stored in adequate spaces.
Food pantries should go to the USDA and FDA websites to sign up for daily alerts on latest food recalls and make it a priority to remove these products from their shelves. Since people utilizing food pantries may be more susceptible to foodborne illnesses, the consumption of recalled foods can seriously impact their health. Additionally, it’s also important for pantries to be actively checking the expiration dates of products since donated food is likely to be close to its expiration date.