What rules of thumb should restaurants follow when donating food?

food donation
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When a restaurant donates food to a homeless shelter, are there special guidelines that should be followed such as use-by dates?

–  Rachel Neely, Volunteer, Mission of Hope House, New London, WI


First, it’s great that you have restaurant partners donating food. It’s a common misperception that restaurants are limited in what they can donate or are somehow liable for it. The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act, passed in 1996, “protects restaurants from civil and criminal liability should a recipient get ill or hurt as a result of consumed donated food. Donors are only culpable in cases of gross negligence or intentional misconduct.”

That said, just because restaurants are not liable for the quality of donated food does not mean they should not be concerned about it. You have an ethical obligation as well as a reputational one to make sure that the food you donate is of a quality you can stand by.

In short, the food you donate should meet the same standards as what you would serve to staff or eat yourself; the donation partner is not your trash bin.

Specifically, from a food safety standpoint, you should ensure that time and temperature controls were observed in preparing and storing the food. It is also important, especially in warm-weather regions, to make sure that the food is staying at the proper temperature during transportation. Just as at your restaurant, date of production and/or date to discard should be indicated on a label, as well as the ingredients used and, especially, allergens.

Receivers at the shelter or soup kitchen should be trained to receive the donation just as a restaurant would receive a delivery—taking the temperature of the food as it comes in and rejecting anything out of temp, checking the label to make sure they can use it before expiry and using senses to detect any problems as well. Some things may look or smell “off”—trust your nose. Hot food should be rethermed to an internal temperature of at least 165F. And while I’ve been a very vocal food recovery advocate, the mantra “when in doubt, throw it out,” still applies.

More on the logistics of food donation here

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