Community refrigerators in the time of a pandemic: food-sharing safety

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Wednesday, January 20, 2021
Olivia Van Osch

Food insecurity has been an increasing global issue well before the current pandemic. Grassroot activists have started initiatives in their communities to help combat food insecurity and food waste at a local level, with one of the most popular programs being the use of food-sharing programs through food commons or community refrigerators. Food commons is a concept popular in Europe, and it is based on the idea that commons are a networked system of physical, financial, and organization infrastructure that allows for a resource to be owned and managed in common, which is beneficial for everyone in a community. Food commons embrace stewardship and sharing of food items by creating public areas that allow access to food for those in the community who need it. A similar concept is a community refrigerator with restaurants donating untouched food items that would otherwise go to waste. The refrigerator is accessible to all in the community as they need it.

Public Health Considerations for Food-Sharing Programs

Community refrigerators are gaining popularity since the idea first started in Europe and has spread to other communities such as India, New Zealand and here in Canada. While the concept of food-sharing programs is simple and helps to reduce inequity in local communities, there are various reasons why informed decision making is needed prior to starting one up in a community. The increased access to food-sharing programs poses an interesting threat to public health by having numerous donors and anonymous users, with limited food traceability. Without proper risk management, the program would run on an honour system and trust that there is no adulteration or contamination of food items that are freely available.  

Two of the greatest concerns with food-sharing programs are traceability and integrity of the food product. The principles behind food safety are complex and decisions regarding safety, risks, and hazards are formulated by food safety experts and trained professionals. Yet stakeholders identified in food-sharing programs encompasses the entire community in which the program is located, as everyone has access to it and can potentially be exposed to the hazards associated with unsafe food. It is hard to measure if the benefits outweigh the risks, and if the possible contamination and lack of traceability justify the use for food-sharing in a community. When done correctly, food-sharing programs can be beneficial to the community it serves as well as adhere to public heath standards.

Traceability

Food traceability is an important concept because it allows public health to reduce food fraud and respond to foodborne illness. Food-sharing programs that are implemented by local initiatives in various parts of Europe acknowledge that such programs are subject to rules that govern all aspects from food safety, to sharing, to risk and liability. A food-sharing program located in Berlin states that the local public health jurisdiction enforces operation rules for the community refrigerator. Enforcement duties include inspection of food premises that contribute to the food-sharing program to ensure they comply with applicable regulations and required record-keeping of all food items whether it is sold, donated, or disposed of, for ease of traceability. These rules enforced by public health are essential to the successful operation of food-sharing programs.

Each food-sharing program requires a proper risk assessment prior to operation for strict guidelines to be put in place to protect the health of the receiving community. Due to the emerging popularity of food-sharing programs, some public health jurisdictions may be caught off guard when one pops up in their community. Pilot projects or small start-up refrigerators may not consider contacting a local health department for a risk assessment or guidance on public health practices before they start operation. The use of a donation information form is one example that public health may request be used to improve traceability for donated items.

Food Integrity

Despite each program being run independently, there are basic donation guidelines that dictate what can and cannot be donated. Most food-sharing programs encourage the donation of fresh produce, beverages, packaged ready-to-eat foods without dairy, eggs and meat, and shelf-stable packaged foods. Items that may be refused include raw meats, damaged packaged items, perishable food items, spoiled food, and partially consumed foods. In Toronto, Ontario, a community refrigerator requires users to list the food item that was donated and requires the use of tamper-proof security labels to prevent adulteration or contamination of donated food items.

Donation guidelines should explicitly list the expectations of donated food to avoid contamination of other items and reduce the incidence of foodborne illness. Some food-sharing programs encourage donation of fully cooked meals, although all prepared meals must be cooked by registered kitchens with a food safety certificate. Any homecooked meals or half-consumed meals should be denied donation and discarded.

Food-Sharing during a Pandemic

More people are experiencing food insecurity due to job loss or other financial constraints during the COVID-19 pandemic. Community refrigerators have reported increased use and demand on their services, with one community refrigerator in Calgary reporting up to 100 visits per day in September 2020. Access to food-sharing programs during these difficult times is incredibly important, however there are additional considerations to maintain safety during the pandemic. While there is no evidence that COVID-19 can be spread through food there could be a risk of transmission if people gather at a community refrigerator or food commons space. There may also be a low risk of fomite transmission from touching contaminated food packaging that has been handled by an infected person and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. Community refrigerators should post guidelines for users that advise them about potential exposures and reminders to wash hands, wear a face covering, and maintain physical distancing. Organizations that manage community refrigerators or similar food-sharing programs are encouraged to equip the space with hand sanitizer, provide access to a handwashing sink, and disinfect handles or high-touch surfaces to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission via fomite. The BC CDC provides donation guidelines during the COVID pandemic that provides the most current recommendations.

Mitigation Options to Consider for Public Health Professionals

Community refrigerators pose a potential threat of fostering and distributing contaminated or adulterated food and may increase community transmission of COVID-19. It is far better for public health to be proactive rather than reactive regarding food-sharing programs that launch in their community, with a risk assessment prior to operation of a food-sharing program. Mitigation strategies to address the risks associated with food-sharing programs should include classifying these programs as food establishments and therefore requiring an inspection by local public heath authorities. This would include the notification of intent to launch a food-sharing program within a community, allowing for public health professionals to prepare and plan. Additionally, food-sharing programs should  adhere to current COVID-19 public health measures such as encouraging users to stay at home if they are sick, the required use of face coverings, and social distancing where applicable.

Summary

With food-sharing programs gaining more popularity, public health professionals need to be prepared to mitigate potential food safety risks. Items to consider when reviewing similar programs include:

  • Public health should work collaboratively with food-sharing program organizers and providers to ensure safety plans are in place as early as possible in the planning stages
  • Ensure programs adhere to the most recent COVID-19 public health safety measures.
  • Ensure clear guidelines are provided on acceptable food donations
  • Food should come from inspected facilities. Home cooked food should not be permitted.

Public health can work collaboratively with operators and providers to ensure safety plans are in place to maintain and promote safe patronage for all users. Food-sharing programs can benefit a community by removing barriers that stand in the way of accessing healthy food for the disadvantaged and to help reduce food waste in a community.  

 

About the Author

Olivia Van Osch is in her final year of study at Conestoga College in the Bachelor of Environmental Public Health program. Olivia currently works for the Public Health Agency of Canada as an Outbreak Investigator, conducting case interviews for national enteric outbreaks. 

Acknowledgements

Olivia would like to thank her professor, Dr. Wendy Pons for her continuous support throughout her academic career and for her help with publishing this blog. 

(This document has been revised on January 22, 2021)