The Vital Role of Food Safety: Perspectives from Bancos de Alimentos Quito
June 14, 2023
One in 10 people falls sick from eating contaminated food each year, with nearly half a million cases resulting in fatalities, according to the World Health Organization. Unsafe food disproportionately impacts vulnerable populations, including women and children, migrants and unhoused groups, and people affected by crisis and conflict—populations that are often already food insecure and shouldn’t have to bear the additional burden of worrying about unsafe food.
Food The Global FoodBanking Network (GFN) member food banks take many measures to ensure proper food handling, preparation, storage, and distribution from the time they receive food until it’s distributed to people who need it.
To increase members’ excellence in food safety, GFN launched a pilot program last year for food banks in Latin America. After going through training and a series of self-assessments, food banks in the program underwent a rigorous inspection equivalent to that of multinational food companies, conducted by AIB International, the industry leader in food safety inspection and certification.
Evaluators from AIB International inspect pallet racks inside Banco de Alimentos Quito’s warehouse in Ecuador. (Photo: Banco de Alimentos Quito)
GFN: Walk us through BAQ’s food safety process, from the time of receiving food all the way until distribution.
Alicia Guevara: We have a few different control points to assure the safety of food.
Any food we receive is visually inspected and temperature checked by the reception team. If any items are in a condition unsuitable for human consumption, [or perishable products do not fall within the permitted temperature ranges], they are immediately separated. BAQ also has a chemical engineering team that performs quality assurance when needed.
Fruits, vegetables, dry goods, and supplies are transported to their respective area for sorting and classification, and dairy products, meat, and other perishable items are stored in refrigeration or freezing rooms. When products are stored, an inventory management system keeps track of products’ entry date and expiration dates to ensure that products are rotated in a timely fashion.
Strict cleaning records for each classification area are kept on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. Only sterile materials like glass, plastic, or steel, are used throughout the warehouse and different colors are used to differentiate products that may contain allergens. We closely monitor foods containing milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soy, to avoid cross-contamination of these allergens. A record of supplies is kept with safety sheets for each product used.
To save produce that is very ripe or has physical imperfections, we produce frozen fruit pulp, salsas, and sauces. In addition to regularly checking temperatures and cleaning equipment during production, we take random samples of the products for sensory and quality analysis and assurance.
Food bank staff and volunteers work in Banco de Alimentos Quito's production area. The food bank eliminates food waste by producing items like frozen fruit pulp, salsas, and dressings. (Photo: The Global FoodBanking Network/Ana María Buitron)
Volunteers help across all of BAQ’s operations, from classifying and sorting, to preparing foods and assembling food packages for community organizations that go on and distribute the food to individuals and families. All volunteers receive training in Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) and every month, we conduct training on specific topics. Our volunteers are registered with an identification card and are assigned to do specific tasks according to their training.
Who is responsible for food safety at BAQ?
We have a multidisciplinary committee directly responsible for food safety management. Most of them are chemical engineers. The AIB International standard requires five food safety personnel in the areas of operations, food safety, hygiene and cleaning, integrated pest management, and programming.
Tell us about the new food loss and waste law in Ecuador.
In May 2022, Ecuador approved a law designed to prevent food loss and waste (FLW) while reducing hunger. As this “FLW law” has gone into effect, many companies and entities are looking for guidance and incentives to donate food.
Though we have not yet seen an increase in food donations specifically due to this law, it has allowed us to approach more companies to talk and promote future donations. There are no well-defined tax incentives associated with donating food, after the FLW law, so there is a great opportunity to advocate for provincial governments and national governments to consider issuing tax incentives for donors.
What would you like to see happen next in terms of food safety laws and policies?
Despite the FLW law being passed, there are still many areas for improvement, and at the end of the day, donating surplus food is still the decision of each company. We hope that companies adapt their processes to optimize their inventory rotation systems, and though the FLW law allows food to be donated after this date—as it is a measure of quality and not food safety—it would be ideal for donated products to be released before the expiration date. We hope that the necessary recommendations will be made to make the FLW law more operational.
Food safety must be carefully observed throughout the food donation process to ensure that as many surplus products as possible can be recovered. And most importantly, we hope that clear policy guidelines are established for donating to food banks to ensure food safety and provide credibility and trust in our systems. Ultimately, improvements to this law would significantly strengthen our ability to recover food and help us feed more people in our country.