The Foods Standards Agency (FSA) is looking into what support charities and groups providing food may need to ensure food safety.
The agency commissioned Ipsos UK to look at the journey food takes from suppliers to end consumers in the community food provision sector.
Figures show food banks are becoming more common in the UK because of food insecurity, with demand and the number of people receiving assistance going up. During the COVID-19 pandemic, more people from increasingly diverse backgrounds became reliant on community food provisions.
The research explored how local food providers operate, how food safety is managed, and how the FSA can support these organizations.
The first part studied the extent of community food provision; how food is distributed; and food safety considerations and risks. The focus was on food banks and national support networks including Trussell Trust, FareShare, and the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN).
Networks sourced food from a range of places, including public donations, business surplus or donations, and redistribution networks. One accepted and provided only ambient goods that has long shelf life while another took all food types.
They typically relied on stock rotation to make sure food was in date order. For large networks, databases were used to log food coming in and where it had been sent. Variation in supply resulted in changing delivery days, some unsuitable stock, and unpredictable quantities.
Networks identified issues with the traceability of food donated from some suppliers. Concerns also centered around not knowing how food had been handled and stored before reaching them.
Vetting processes for organizations looking to join often involved an audit of food safety and hygiene. Local centers had staff dedicated to checking the quality of food as it came in, that it was clearly labeled with dates and stored correctly.
Community providers suggested some businesses and retailers donated items as a way to manage costs for throwing away food.
Community providers tend to err on the side of caution, which can result in less food going to those that require it and more food waste.
Shared spaces, allergen labeling, and FSA role
The second phase in February and March 2022 involved eight case studies with community food providers from England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
Organizations had mixed models for offering support, including providing meals, collection, and delivery of food parcels with non-perishable and fresh items.
Some had been told it would be difficult to achieve the top food hygiene rating of 5 because they were dealing with food near to or at its use-by date, and sometimes beyond best before dates.
Most groups did not accept food that was not clearly labeled with the full ingredients list, to manage allergen risks.
Organizations were unclear about how to correctly handle unpackaged items, including baked goods like pasties and bread, and how long frozen food can be out of the freezer before it becomes unsafe.
There were concerns about preparing, labeling, and storing bulky items such as meat, transporting chilled or frozen food, and preparation areas as some groups had to use shared spaces or had limited equipment.
Case studies described occasions where retailers donated spoiled ready meals or moldy bread and rolls or when pastries and bread came together without labeling.
When asked how the FSA could support providers, guidance and resources around key food risks were a common recommendation. This included how to handle food close to or at its use-by date and the right approach to allergen labeling.
Some providers would also like the FSA to work with large supermarkets and other suppliers to develop guidance on how to safely pass on surplus food to community groups. One example was ensuring food is donated with the correct paperwork to help with traceability.
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