Food Swaps and Food Safety

Food safety is one of the topics that is coming up frequently in the larger swap conversation across the country. Swap hosts across the country have talked about it amongst ourselves, articles are being written about it, and suspicious readers have commented on food swap-centric articles online. How trusting can we be of how participants prepare their food, the cleanliness of their kitchen, and their food storage techniques? If you have dietary restrictions or allergies, how can you be assured that a food has been safe from cross-contamination? How do we handle issues of liability? These are just some of the serious questions that we face, and I think it’s time to explore it a bit here.

Honestly, these issues make my head spin. I want to trust that everyone is using good food safety practices and I always hope that no one will get sick. I want to trust that people will understand the risks involved with exchanging homemade food and take personal responsibility for their choices. I don’t want to deal with liability – I just want to get people together to trade food and build a community of like-minded individuals. Oh, how idealistic of me! Unfortunately, things just aren’t that simple, and because of that, swapper friends, we’re going to talk about it. This post is just scratching the surface, but I wanted to get a dialogue started.

The Risks

Anytime we open our mouths to eat something prepared by someone else, we face a multitude of unknown factors. While I would like to think that everyone attending the swap is interested enough in cooking and food prep to practice good food safety, I know that “good food safety” can be a subjective thing. Maybe their cat walks all over their kitchen counter. Maybe they don’t wash fruits and veggies very well. Maybe their cutting board is never appropriately scrubbed. Maybe their dishrags are filthy and they don’t practice regular handwashing techniques. Maybe they don’t sterilize their jars appropriately when they can. Maybe they regularly use ingredients in their kitchens that you have an allergy to, and their food has too much cross-contamination to be safe for you. Some of these factors could lead to unwanted bacterial growth and food poisoning, some of them could cause an allergy reaction, and others are just yucky to think about.

The worst scenario, of course, is that someone gets sick from a swapped item. This would be awful. To the best of our knowledge, this has not yet happened. We’ve had three swaps, with nearly 40 people in attendance at each swap. If no one has gotten sick, I’d say we have a pretty darn good track record.  But what if it happens? Who is liable – the producer of the food or those of us organizing the event? How do we make reparations to the person who became ill? Is there any kind of penalty for the person who made the “bad” food? And how do we prevent it from happening again?

Let’s contrast this to getting food from a commercial kitchen. Certainly, commercial establishments are required by law to abide by specific regulations. But these laws don’t necessarily guarantee a safe product.  I’ve worked in kitchens with such questionable practices that I stopped eating their food, and only continued working there because I desperately needed a paycheck. I’ve only gotten food poisoning from restaurants – never from someone’s homemade foods. Product recalls of everything from alfalfa sprouts to peanut butter to spinach are not uncommon. And don’t even get me started on the bacteria content of meat produced in conventional processing plants. Really, can we be truly trusting of foods that come from a restaurant, commercial kitchen, factory, or processing plant? I don’t think so.

The only thing we can be certain of is that we will never be sure how other people prepare food in their kitchens. But we eat anyway, whether it’s from the fast food establishment down the street or at a potluck with your neighbors. And most of the time, it seems that people agree that the homemade food is the most satisfying. Truly, sharing food with each other is part of the human condition. Food is part of how we connect with each other, it fills one of our basic needs and provides a commonality among all other differences. For as long as human history exists, there is record of people exchanging foods in a common marketplace and we are carrying on that tradition here.

Pumpkin Hummus with Preserved Lemon, from the June 2011 food swap

The Benefits

One of the things I like about the swaps is that I know the person that created that food item is standing in the room with me. If you have questions about how it was prepared or the process they used to make it, you can ask them, and if you are not satisfied with an answer, you don’t have to bid on it. If you do a brief assessment of the person and question the cleanliness of their kitchen, use your own judgement. Your judgement may be totally off, but at least you’re empowered to make that choice and live with it.

I  have multiple food allergies, and eating one of my many allergens can easily result in feeling sick for days or my throat swelling up. I need to know what ingredients are used in everything I eat. Unfortunately, finding out ingredients can be a hard thing to accomplish at commercial food establishments. Restaurants are often hesitant to hand out ingredients, leaving folks like me in the dark. Food swaps have been a refreshing change. I like that I can inquire about ingredients, cross-contamination, and get a feel about how “safe” an item will be for me. If I’m not satisfied with the answer, I don’t sample it and I don’t bid on it. I choose to play it safe, and I actually have information to be able to do so.

This level of dialogue between producer and consumer is rare in commercial food culture. Since everyone is both a producer and consumer, it puts us each in an empowering and thought-provoking position, and I believe heightens awareness for the needs of others and encourages people to really take their food preparation practices up a notch. The swap leads to a different level of engagement in your consumption,  encouraging conversation between participants and the sharing of knowledge.

We are all proud of what we prepare and share at each swap. We are proud of the flavor, the appearance, and the time that went in to creating the finished product. We should also be proud of our knowledge and our process, and food safety is part of that. Washing hands, using clean utensils, reducing risk for bacteria cross-contamination, and practicing good food storage is nothing to be scoffed at. It is something to be honored, respected, and practiced at every opportunity.  I trust that everyone participating is practicing good food safety while preparing their items. I trust that people know what they put in their food, and will be transparent about any and all ingredients. I trust that individuals will make smart choices for the items they take home. In the end, I think it comes down to trust and personal responsibility.

What we can do.

In regards to ingredients, one of the things we request is that people list all ingredients in their items, and mark potential allergens on their Food Swap bid sheet. We also encourage people to talk to each other about the food items and how they are prepared.

In regards to requiring a standard of food safety and releasing liability, we haven’t done much to explore this yet. One of the possibilities on our end is requiring a waiver  to be signed by each participant at each swap at the time that they register. Another option is making the MPLS Swappers a “private club”, which would protect us from any possible legal consequences regarding food safety legislation. To the best of my knowledge, we are in compliance with Minnesota Department of Agriculture law, but covering ourselves could be smart. But, this option would probably require some kind of dues payment to join the “club”, and I would prefer that MPLS Swappers remain a no cost event without any kind of membership requirement.

I’m sure there are other options as well, but this conversation is new for us and we haven’t gotten there yet. And, maybe we don’t do anything at all, and leave things as we have them now. Mandy, A-K, and I will be meeting next week to talk swap, and these issues will be on our agenda. We’d love to hear your feedback in the next week so give us ideas to brainstorm.

What do you think?

So, how do you feel about this issue? What sort of action should we/could we take to ensure good food safety compliance, as well as release the MPLS Swappers of liability? Have you ever handled liability around events like this before, and what did you do?

Before we do anything, we’d love to know your thoughts and feelings on this issue, and any suggestions you might have. Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Fun with Food Safety

And, finally, we’re going to be starting a fun and quirky series of regular posts entitled “Fun with Food Safety”. While food safety isn’t the sexiest topic ever, it is important. So let’s make it fun and learn together!

I’m looking forward to seeing everyone at the swap this coming Saturday. Until then, happy cooking! And please, share your feedback and ideas. We want to hear what you think about this issue.


3 Responses to “Food Swaps and Food Safety”
  1. Anissa says:

    As a swapper, I understand that I can’t always know what other people’s kitchen habits are. I feel like part of this movement is learning to let go a little. For me, part of that is trusting that the other swappers are foodies too, and anyone who loves food enough to come to one of these swaps isn’t going to be casual about food safety.

    Also, the swaps aren’t anonymous, so I know that if I get sick from something, I can bring it up to whoever I swapped to, and maybe it’s a learning experience for people. Everyone was new at this at some point.

    My 2 cents.

  2. I agree I think most people who attend something like this really care about food, and are going to prepare it well. That’s my hope, anyway!
    I do think in addition to listing ingredients on the bid sheets, it would be great if on the actual food somewhere there is a label saying when it was made or how long it’s good for. For example, canned food is generally considered good for up to a year, but was the canned item you swapped for just canned, or canned last season? Is it in a canning jar so you think it’s canned, but that’s just its storage container and it actually should be eaten right away? Obviously all things you could ask at the swap, but you may not think to. Or if you swap for enough items, you may not remember for all of them! Labeling with a ‘best by’ date may be an idea to help with the food safety.

  3. Kate @ Snowflake Kitchen says:

    I think a lot of is straight up common sense. If you bring a questionable/questionable looking item, people aren’t going to want to swap with you. No one is going to want to swap with you again if you make them sick. While there is a great deal of trust involved, there is also a great deal of common sense here, folks. I swapped for some jam at one of my first swaps, only to open it about a month later to a green and fuzzy surface. Clearly, I didn’t eat it. Plus, if you lose a few items, or a few items go bad, and you came home with other great things, I still call that a win. If you feel you can’t use common sense when swapping, or can’t take the required leap of faith to trust a group of similar-minded foodies, then swapping isn’t for you.

    Kate @ Snowflake Kitchen/CRFM Swappers

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