There is a need for a specific food safety regulatory framework for donated food in Australia, according to researchers.

Current national food safety laws and policies regulate businesses, but do not apply to donations.

The study, published in the journal Food Policy, involved visually identifying and assessing the safety and quality of donations at an Australian food bank. It found there was a need for food safety guidance to protect food banks from receiving damaged, spoiled, and expired products that pose a risk to clients. 

Criteria were developed based on food safety standards and applied to 1,217 items of donated food. Each product was inspected and assessed as safe,‘unsuitable,‘potentially unsafe, or unsafe for human consumption.

Need to improve donation quality
Of the almost 85,000 kilograms of donated food, 96 percent was categorized as satisfactory and 4 percent as either unsafe, potentially unsafe, or unsuitable for consumption. Not all risks can be identified by visual assessment, for example microbial contamination, so the proportion of hazardous foods could be higher, said scientists.

Data collected during a five-day audit of food given to the Foodbank of Western Australia was used for the assessment. Packaging and the product itself were inspected for damage. Visual inspection was used to determine temperature control and evidence of thawing in frozen products.

Lead author Sharonna Mossenson, from the Curtin School of Population Health, said findings highlight the need for donors, particularly supermarkets, to improve the quality of food they donate.

“Supermarkets donated the most food overall, half of which was in small mixed loads from local supermarkets, which is a process that needs closer attention as most of the unsafe food was in these mixed loads,” she said.

“While Foodbank WA has extensive processes in place to dispose of unsafe foods, the time it takes for staff and volunteers to unpack and check each donated item is substantial. Introducing explicit regulations requiring food donors to eliminate inappropriate foods before they are donated could free up Foodbank WA staff time so they can focus more on their clients.”

Examples of dodgy donations
In total, 27 of 72 donations contained products classed as unsafe or unsuitable. Supermarkets were responsible for 18 donations containing products categorized as unsafe, potentially unsafe or unsuitable.

Products past the use-by date included chicken-based chilled meals, salami, frankfurters, and pork schnitzels. Items past their acceptable best before date included a can of coconut cream that was almost three years old. There were 51-kilograms worth of dented cans donated. Other concerns were visible mold, unidentifiable items due to missing labeling, and breakfast cereals contaminated with leaking pet food and maggots.

“These examples demonstrate a failure in the current system, and potentially, a disregard for basic food safety principles by donors. The overall proportion of visually unsafe and unsuitable foods was low, but consumption of any unsafe, hazardous and/or damaged products poses a risk to the consumer. Given the vulnerability of clients receiving this food, the public health risk is high,” said researchers.

Kate O’Hara, Foodbank WA chief executive officer, said the unknown nature of donations created challenges.

“There are always improvements to be made across the entire food relief sector, particularly to ensure donations are made within a safe timeframe and appropriate refrigerated transportation and storage is utilized.”

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