Department of Health

Key messages

  • Food businesses or individuals can donate food to charities or emergency services.
  • Donated food must be safe to eat, just as food for sale must be.
  • If you wish to donate food, contact the charity or emergency service of interest to find out what kind of food they can accept.

Proprietors of food businesses may worry about whether they can give away food and what the legal consequences might be.

The Food Act 1984 (the Act)does not prevent food businesses from giving away food, but the food that is given away must be safe. The Act does require that unsafe food be thrown away.

Food is unsafe if it is likely to cause the person eating it physical harm.

Food may be donated to charities or to emergency service organisations.

Donated food – making sure it’s safe

Food safety precautions for donated food are the same as for any other food. Food safety involves taking care when handling, storing, packing, and transporting food.

Because of the way in which food becomes available for donation, it is important that the donor has it collected by, or delivered to, a charity in the shortest possible time.

Food-poisoning bacteria are often naturally present in food, even if the food looks, tastes and smells normal. Some donated foods that are high-risk can quickly become unsafe when not refrigerated or eaten immediately, especially in warm weather.

The correct storage temperature for high-risk foods is below 5 °C or above 60 °C. High-risk foods include meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products and smallgoods, or foods that contain these foods, such as sandwiches, quiches, and prepared salads.

Food donors and charities should ensure that donated food spends as little time as possible in transport. Where possible, high-risk food should be kept below 5 °C and out of the temperature danger zone (between 5 °C and 60 °C) while being transported.

Donated food should be transferred to clean, covered food-grade containers. Everyone involved in handling the donated food should maintain the highest standard of personal hygiene and cleanliness.

Food safety in an emergency

Emergencies are unpredictable, and the risk of food poisoning is often greater than usual at these times. Although the Act doesn’t stop people from donating food to emergency services organisations, there are some important issues to consider.

It’s vital that emergency workers remain healthy when they’re attending disasters. It is also important that members of the community affected by a disaster don’t suffer extra hardship because of food poisoning.

An emergency situation makes it harder to keep food safe. Even if donated food is prepared safely in your home, emergency services cannot always guarantee safe storage, handling, and distribution of donated, ready-to-eat food in emergency conditions. For example, there may not be access to a reliable refrigerator or space in available storage facilities, or clean running water for handwashing that would be required to ensure food is safe to eat.

Donating to emergency services – checklist

Preparing food for others is a natural response in an emergency, but it is not often practical for emergency services to accept donated, ready-to-eat food during emergencies.

If you are considering donating food to an emergency services organisation, consider the following before doing so:

  • Always check with your local emergency services before donating to ensure they have the capacity to receive, store and distribute the goods. They can advise you of the kinds of donations they are able to accept under their guidelines. For example, they may not be able to accept food donated for frontline workers, such as firefighters.
  • Many emergency services organisations coordinate their own catering and need volunteers to help with food preparation and service in their on-site ‘kitchens’.
  • Businesses and individuals can offer to donate shelf-stable foods (for example, tinned foods, biscuits, cereals and bottled water) that do not need to be kept under a controlled temperature.
  • Organisations such as the Red Cross always welcome financial donations to support emergency management and recovery.
  • The department has developed a series of tips to keep food safe in an emergency. See Food safety during power outages.

If you’d like to donate food or help in any other way, contact Red Cross, a local emergency service organisation or your council to determine the best way to assist.

To support and encourage businesses to donate food, legislation provides indemnity for organisations that donate safe food to charitable organisations.

The legislation offers protection to food donors, as long as certain preconditions are met:

  • food is donated in good faith for a charitable or benevolent purpose
  • food is donated with the intention that the receiver of the food does not have to pay for the food
  • food is safe to eat when it leaves the possession or control of the donor
  • the donor gives the charity any information it needs to ensure the ongoing safety of the food.

Donors should also check to ensure that the charity is doing everything to keep food safe.

Usually, food donated to charities is either:

  • unused portions of food prepared by a food business and not served to customers
  • food bought by a food business that is excess to requirements.

Reviewed 06 September 2023


Contact details

Food Safety Unit

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