Food Safety Focus (203rd Issue, June 2023)– Article 1
Food Safety of Food Banks and Community Kitchens
Reported by Dr. Jessica WONG, Medical & Health Officer, and
Mr. Kenneth YIP, Scientific Officer,
Risk Communication Section, Centre for Food Safety
In Hong Kong, there are food recovery programmes, such as food banks and community kitchens usually operated by non-governmental organisations, to provide food assistance to people in need (Figure 1). They also help to reduce food waste. Food banks and food pantries collect and redistribute donated food, while community kitchens often involve additional food processing steps such as handling, re-heating and cooking. No matter how donated food is recovered, it must be fit for human consumption. This article briefs the food safety concerns involved in running food banks and community kitchens, explains measures in securing food safety and provides advice on handling collected food.
Figure 1. How community kitchens and food banks receive food from different sources, rescue and redistribute them to people in need.
Proper Stock Inspection and Management for Food Recovery
While food recovery organisations gather food donations from multiple sources like charities and food companies for redistribution, varied quality of the food received may raise food safety concerns. Prepackaged food received may past its “use by” date, while non-prepackaged food may be damaged or spoiled. Collected food can also go bad if stored improperly. Therefore, before receiving donated food and building up the inventory, it is important to inspect whether the foods are stored according to the manufacturers’ instructions or kept under suitable temperatures.
Prepackaged food should be checked for irregularities on packaging, such as cracks on bottles or tears on bags (Figure 2), and properly labelled with instructions like expiry dates, allergen information and storage instructions. For non-prepackaged food, such as fresh meat and produce, only wholesome items should be accepted. In general, mouldy and rotten items or those with excessive bruises should be rejected.
Collected food should be stored properly in a hygienic and pest-free environment before redistribution. When storing food, follow the storage instructions and do not redistribute food beyond the “use by” dates, whereas expiry dates only apply to unopened products. Perishable food should be kept in the refrigerator at or below 4°C, and frozen food should be kept in the freezer at or below -18°C. Shelf-stable food items, such as canned food and cereals, should be kept in a cool and dry place.
It should be noted that the first-in-first-out principle may not be applicable in the food banks setting since the same product may have come from various sources with potentially different expiry dates. Expiry dates are essential information on inventory records to facilitate timely outgoing transactions and avoid wastage. Thus, food banks should keep track of the inventory not only for storage purpose, but also for traceability.
Figure 2. Examples of common irregularities of prepackaged food items.
Ensure Safe Food Preparation in Community Kitchens
Donated food can also be further processed in community kitchens, which provide a space where individuals or groups can come together to prepare and cook food. Cooking classes, nutrition education or other services may also be offered at these kitchens to help individuals and families to improve their food literacy and cooking skills.
Since community kitchens usually prepare and serve meals that are either consumed on-site or delivered to groups in need in the form of meal boxes, improper food handling can lead to foodborne illnesses. To prevent this, food handlers working in community kitchens should receive appropriate training in food safety and maintain good personal, environmental and food hygiene at work. Food handlers and operators of community kitchens should always observe the “Good Hygiene Practices” and “Five Keys to Food Safety” throughout the food production and recovery processes.
Notably, meals prepared in community kitchens are usually meant to be eaten right away, without further cooking or preparation. Therefore, they should be consumed as soon as possible. If not consumed immediately or for transportation, keep hot foods hot at temperatures over 60°C and cold foods cold at 4°C or below as far as possible. Chilled food should not be reheated more than once and should be reheated thoroughly before serving. All prepared meals that have been held at room temperature for more than four hours should be discarded.
The primary goal of a community kitchen is to promote social interaction, encourage healthy eating habit and provide access to nutritious food for individuals and families who may not have the resources or knowledge to prepare meals on their own. Overall, it is important to maintain food safety in these kitchens to prevent foodborne illnesses.