For food banks and other charitable agencies, perishable food donations have continued to increase, creating more of a need to ensure that the products arrive and are distributed safely. While the food safety risks that potentially come with perishable donations drive some operators away from giving food that may go to waste, there are systems in place to create a safe process.
“For most restaurants, their [donated] products are usually things that haven’t been made yet, possibly things that are coming to the end of their shelf life,” says David Crownover, product manager of the National Restaurant Association’s ServSafe program. “From the operator’s perspective, it’s: ‘What can we offer from the restaurant that would still be maintained within a safe supply chain?’”
ServSafe offers training for both food handlers and managers on food safety practices when it comes to handling food, preventing foodborne illness, and training employees in food sanitation. The NRA has also partnered with national nonprofit Feeding America to create a ServSafe training program suited for food bank donations and handling.
Feeding America, which feeds 46 million people annually with 4 billion meals, has distributed about 17,000 copies of the training program and has also created a companion video to go with it. The program is built around the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) five risk factors that most often are responsible for foodborne illness outbreaks: improper hot or cold holding temperatures for potentially hazardous food, improper cooking temperature, food from unsafe sources, cross-contamination of utensils and equipment, and poor employee health and hygiene.
“One of the biggest concerns between those that are donating and those that are accepting, especially from a microbial side of things, is food that’s perishable,” Crownover says. “Obviously for canned goods and dry goods, while there are some concerns, from a risk perspective [the concerns] are a little bit lower versus fresh produce or fresh proteins, meats, and those kind of things.”
Mitzi Baum, managing director of food safety for Feeding America, says the program has successfully highlighted for operators what the organization’s food safety standards are and the length the nonprofit goes to in order to ensure that the cold chain remains intact.
Over the past three years, Feeding America’s donations have averaged to be a ratio of about 50:50 for perishable and shelf-stable products. The organization sources more than 1.25 billion pounds of produce, 1 billion pounds of retail rescue, and 2.15 billion pounds of shelf-stable product.
“As you see in the grocery store, the core of the store has shrunk with the perimeter expanding with fresh foods, so perishable products have expanded exponentially and shelf-stable products have been reduced drastically over the years,” Baum says. For operators, “what’s important is making sure the product is handled safely and cooled appropriately, and on our side, we try to mitigate our risk by taking sample temperatures at pick-up to ensure that a donor has handled the product safely and we document that temperature to ensure that we transport it safely.”
The CDC estimates that one in six Americans gets sick and 3,000 people die each year from foodborne illness. According to the CDC, improper holding temperatures lead to the majority of food poisoning cases, and employees can also be a significant source of harmful microorganisms. Proper handwashing, and other hygiene practices, are essential to prevent food and utensil contamination, and operators should not allow sick employees to work in the kitchen.
Organizations face increasing challenges to food safety as food production and supply chains continue to change. New and emerging bacteria, toxins, antibiotic resistance, an increase in imported food, and changes in the environment are all factors contributing to more food safety challenges, according to the CDC.
Crownover says the concern over liability can drive operators away from donating, but there are legal systems in place to promote getting food to those in need. In 1996, the U.S. passed the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which protects donors from liability and sets a floor of gross negligence. Under the act, donors are protected from both civil and criminal liability should the product cause harm to a recipient.
Feeding America works with each individual organization making donations to identify what program it would like to run. The guidelines for each donor are mainly based on the same food safety principles, Baum says, but some donors have different requirements for how and when products can be picked up.
Every Feeding America food bank is also required to have a minimum of one manager-level certified food safety employee on staff, and those working in the pick-up programs must have food-safety training. “It speaks to our commitment to food safety, and that food safety is foundational to what we do,” Baum says. “All of the products that are handled through our network are managed safely with the end user and all who are food insecure in mind.”