Food safety and holiday food baskets

Food banks and pantries must consider safety when distributing holiday food baskets.

A holiday ham in its packaging.
Photo: MSU Extension/Chris Venema.

Many times throughout the year, food banks and pantries distribute unique holiday food baskets. Often these baskets include special foods for a holiday, such as a ham. Since your customers are expecting you to provide safe and wholesome food, food safety measures are essential.  Food safety is important because your customers may be members of high-risk or vulnerable populations, such as older adults or people living with a chronic disease.

The general public may want to donate food to the food pantry.  Maybe a local school or community group has a canned food drive. The food bank or food pantry should have policies on what foods are accepted or rejected. For example, box mixes should be no older than two years from the best quality date. The food pantry should consider whether they have storage space for the donated foods. Another policy should be no homemade baked goods or home-preserved canned goods are accepted because of unknown processing or preparation conditions.

Holiday food baskets fall into four categories. They are shelf-stable, protein only, shelf-stable plus a protein and a complete meal. The first basket is shelf-stable. The United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service defines shelf-stable foods as foods that can be stored safely at room temperature or on the shelf. The first basket has shelf-stable foods such as canned fruits and vegetables, shelf-stable desserts, and stuffing and baking mixes. These foods need to be kept in dry storage in the temperature range of 50 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit and out of direct sunlight. Canned goods and mixes should be no older than two years beyond the quality date on the packaging. Due to the lack of knowledge of the processing conditions, home-preserved foods and homemade pies and desserts are unacceptable.

The second type of holiday food basket is protein only. This basket contains either poultry, ham, or another frozen protein.  The protein needs to be frozen at 0 degrees. or colder to prevent foodborne illness pathogens from growing. Distribute instructions for thawing the protein. The customer needs information on caring for the frozen protein and to keep it out of the temperature danger zone.

Frozen protein and shelf-stable foods are in the third type of basket. The frozen protein needs to be frozen until distributed to the customer to prevent foodborne illness. Shelf-stable canned fruits like cranberry sauce, vegetables such as green beans, dry stuffing mix or biscuit mixes, and desserts need to be kept in the dry storage range of 50 to 70 degrees and away from direct sunlight.

A complete holiday meal basket contains a frozen protein like turkey or ham; fresh produce such as white or sweet potatoes, celery or onions; canned fruits (cranberry sauce) and vegetables and fresh commercial pies.  Cut produce and pies such as pumpkin require refrigeration. Keep them out of the temperature danger zone of 40 to 140 degrees to prevent foodborne illness.

Before assembling the holiday food baskets, hand washing for twenty seconds is a must to prevent foodborne illness and cross-contamination. The assembly area should be a clean place where all the surfaces can be washed, rinsed, sanitized and air-dried. Volunteers or staff should wear hair restraints, aprons and disposable gloves to prevent contamination of the food products. The boxes or containers used to package the holiday foods should never hold raw meat, poultry or seafood, or chemicals because they are contaminated.  Using grocery bags requires the bags be new and never used to prevent the potential of cross-contamination.

Add recipes and Michigan State University Extension fact sheets to the holiday food baskets so your customers will know how to thaw and prepare the donated food.

For more information on ways to make your pantry services safer, visit Michigan State University Extension’s For Food Pantries website.

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