Food-donations_406x250The food safety of food pantries is a fairly new arena for researchers, but with 14 percent of American households insecure about food at some point during 2014, it’s drawing more attention. The latest bit of research on the subject finds that there is “much room for improvement,” particularly when it comes to recalls. The report was published online Sunday in the Journal of Food Protection. “Populations of lower socioeconomic status are suspected to experience greater rates of foodborne illness, although this is difficult to demonstrate,” wrote study authors Ashley Chaifetz of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Ben Chapman of North Carolina State University. Also, those who rely on food pantries often have less access to healthcare in the event that they are infected with a foodborne pathogen. They studied the standard operating procedures and interviewed managers at 105 food pantries from 12 North Carolina counties. The “snapshot” of the state’s food pantries compared differences between independent pantries and those partnered with a food bank, metropolitan versus rural, and pantries in which the managers did and did not receive any food safety training. Many of the food safety procedures Chaifetz and Chapman encountered were informal. Nearly all pantries did a good job of limiting opportunities for cross-contamination and providing adequate hand-washing facilities, but safe food handling training and knowledge about recalls were lacking. Managers at 77 pantries received some food safety training, and those at pantries partnered with a food bank — a warehouse that stores and distributes food obtained from producers, retailers, federal commodity programs, and the food industry to food pantries — rather than at independently run pantries were more likely to have received training. Only 41 percent of the volunteers at all the pantries were reported to have gone through training, including but not limited to, food safety. Only 64 percent of pantry managers said they had up-to-date information regarding recalls, and 60 of the 67 pantries with recall information partnered with a food bank. “That most pantry managers lacked information on food recalls is a public health failure,” Chaifetz and Chapman wrote. Some of their other findings regarding recalls were that:

  • “Ten pantry managers assumed the food bank would remove any recalled items before distribution or that the food bank would contact them in the event of a recall, even though it had never done so.”
  • “Twenty-nine managers had never pulled nor searched the pantry for a recalled product, but 13 pantry managers explicitly remembered that they had to search for or pull peanut butter during its most recent recall.”
  • “[S]ix pantry managers currently post information for clients, seven additional pantries would tell the clients if they learned of a recall (but had never done so), and 15 pantry managers responded that they would not tell the clients, either because they were unable to do so or because they made the assumption that recalled food would not reach the client.”

Chaifetz and Chapman emphasized in their report that there are limitations in stating that their findings are representative of other states, but they offered some recommendations for things any food pantry could do to improve food safety. These include emphasizing regular hand-washing, obtaining more regular information on recalls, creating strict rules for what foods they will and will not distribute, and having set procedures on repackaging items, from glove use to packaging and labeling. Producing a written set of Standard Operating Procedures would also help pantry staff and volunteers understand the reasons for, and importance of, food safety tasks. There is a lot more research still to be done regarding emergency food operations, but this study has already been used by officials with North Carolina Cooperative Extension to develop a set of free educational resources for food pantries. (To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)