By: Heather Williams
Home meal delivery kits are growing in popularity. Even celebrities are promoting the convenient alternative to fast-food and eating out. These services offer you neatly packaged ingredients with recipes to prepare delicious gourmet meals without the hassle of buying the individual ingredients yourself. Some say it helps them step outside of their normal cooking style and others just like the convenience of ingredients delivered to their door. Just go online, point, click, order, and it is delivered! Whatever your reason for using the service and whatever particular business you decide on, there may be a temperature food safety risk with the product.
Research on Meal Kit Delivery Finds Temperatures Out of Range
At the 2017 Food Safety Summit, a Rutgers University Professor presented research on these meal kits. In a study from 1,002 consumer interviews, a review of 427 domestic food delivery websites, and testing 169 home meal kits, the results were horrifying. Testing found many of the meat products to be full of pathogenic bacteria. While the companies have taken precaution to cold pack the products in one way or another and provide some kind of insulated packaging, nearly half of the meat, seafood, and poultry products arrived at a temperature above 40 degrees. This temperature makes the meat unsafe to consume. One kit in the study arrived at temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees and had “microbial loads off the charts,” said Professor Bill Hallman of Rutgers University. Food containing that much pathogenic bacteria can cause foodborne illness if eaten. According to the research, “only 5 percent of orders required a signature upon delivery.”
Researchers suggest the major issue is caused by the length of time between delivery and when the recipient arrives at home and properly refrigerates it. Some products may be left out in the elements 8 or more hours before being handled properly. This delivery mechanism increases the opportunity for a highly risky temperature controlled product, like meat, to thaw to unsafe temperatures.
Who’s Responsible for Safe Delivery?
Delivery services such as FedEx, UPS, and the United States Postal Service “specifically disclaim responsibility for the integrity of perishable products.” Perishable items should be packaged in such a way to keep the product safe until it reaches its destination and can be properly handled. However, vendors using these delivery services also disclaim responsibility if timely deliveries are not made. This blame shifting leaves customers not knowing who is at fault for products delivered out of temperature range and neither party is claiming responsibility.
Why is Temperature Important?
Hot or cold delivered products can lead to illness if not handled properly before and after it reaches the recipients home. Leaving food at room temperature too long can allow harmful bacteria like Staphylococus aureus, Salmonella, E. coli 015:H7, and Camplyobacter to grow to dangerous levels leading to foodborne infection. A general rule of thumb is that you want to keep hot food hot and cold food cold.
FoodSafety.Gov, a collaborative group consisting of The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the US Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has published guidelines for safe food storage. They indicate temperatures between 40ºF and 140ºF are the most dangerous temperatures, allowing harmful bacteria to double in number in as little as 20 minutes. Any food left in this range for 2 or more hours is unsafe to eat and should be discarded. FoodSafety.Gov gives only an hour at temperatures 90ºF or above, at which time the food should be discarded.
Surprisingly, only 42% of home delivery food companies offer their customers’ food safety information on whether or not the temperature the product arrives at is safe, and of those that do provide information it is either inaccurate or difficult to find on the website. Hallman noted that one vendor provided guidance: “Your bison meat may be thawed by the time it gets to you. Touch the meat and if it is cool to the touch your order is in good condition.” Cool to the touch? There is no safety standard indicating cool to the touch is an appropriate guideline for temperature.
Why is Thawed Meat Harmful?
Frozen food is kept safe by slowing the movement of molecules in the food. This creates a dormant stage for bacteria. As the food thaws and approaches 40 degrees, bacteria come out of the dormant stage and resume activity. They will multiply at the same levels as they would on fresh food. This increase in bacterial count increases the risk of foodborne illness.
Many people believe that cooking food to proper temperature will kill any bacteria present in the food, so temperature control prior to cooking is not as important as temperature after cooking. You may not realize it, but many bacteria also produce a toxin. Bacteria like Salmonella produce a toxin that is resistant to heating. What does that mean? Even if the bacteria are dead from cooking to appropriate temperatures, the toxins will still remain in the food and may cause foodborne illness.
Tips to Safely Use Meal Kit Services
Is it unsafe to use these meal kit services? Absolutely not. These businesses have a great concept. If it fits in your lifestyle and you are interested in stepping outside of your culinary comfort zone or just want someone else to do the measuring and prep work for you, this is a great idea. After all, who really enjoys chopping onions and peppers? Just keep in mind some key safety information to keep yourself and your family safe.
Be Present for Delivery
If possible, be at home when the meal kit is delivered. This may not be possible in all cases. If you work, perhaps have it delivered to your job. Maybe have the box delivered to a nearby friend or family member who will be home and doesn’t mind storing it properly in the refrigerator or freezer until you can get to it.
Go with a company that has good reviews. Research what type of packaging they use and determine if you believe it is sufficient to keep the product cold. Reach out to the company and ask questions about food temperature management and how they handle a shipment that is delivered outside of acceptable temperature range.
Examine the Product
When you unpack the product, be sure the products meet proper temperature standards. If possible, use a meat thermometer to make sure the product is in range prior to refrigerating. Make sure each ingredient is properly labeled, as different meat types have varying cooking temperature requirements.
If a company delivers you a product that doesn’t meet the temperature requirements or you have a difficult time getting the information you need, leave feedback either with the company, review sites, or both. Doing this allows others to make a more informed decision.
Once you have decided on a company, done all of your research, and planned for a safe delivery option, pick out your cuisine options and get cooking. Enjoy your meal and the fun and convenience that the service offers.