Home delivery meal kits have grown in popularity in recent years, however some food safety experts have raised concerns that these packages could be a threat to consumer health. In assessing the integrity of these ready-to-cook meals, researchers from Rutgers University and Tennessee State University identified multiple food safety issues, including potential pathogen contamination, packaging and labeling issues, and the proper cold-chain shipping and storage of the food. The researchers presented their findings at the 2017 Food Safety Summit.
The team of researchers ordered 169 delivered meal kits, including packages that contained 271 meat products, 235 seafood items, and 39 poultry products. Meal kits containing raw meat were especially concerning, considering that stable temperatures and separate packaging must be maintained to avoid contamination and potential foodborne illness.
An interview component involving over 1,000 consumers was also included in the study, which found that 95 percent of those polled believed that home delivered meal kits were safe. The findings of this study call that belief into question. In their study, the researchers found that these food packages often didn’t require a signature upon delivery and were often left outside for more than eight hours before the ingredients inside were refrigerated.
What’s more, the delivery services – including UPS, FedEx and the US Postal Service – used by these meal companies do not claim responsibility over the integrity of perishable food products, nor do the vendor companies themselves. In looking at the food delivery services websites, the researchers found that only 42 percent of them included any information about food safety.
According to Professor Bill Hallman of Rutgers University, one of the food suppliers recommended that customers touch the meat included in their meal kits to determine whether the meat has thawed during shipping. The vendor said that if the meat was “cool to the touch” then the “order is in good condition.”
The researchers also noted significant variations in surface temperatures of food items included in the boxed meal kits. Items shipped in dry ice showed surface temperatures as low as minus 23 degrees Fahrenheit, while food products shipped alongside frozen gel packs came in at 75 degrees.
Individual products shipped together in a single box also showed significant variations in surface temperature. Almost half of the total 684 food items tested showed surface temperatures over 40 degrees, which is above the safe storage limits for uncooked meat.
In addition to the temperature stability issues, Hallman and his colleagues found that meats included in the same kit – including ground beef, pork and lamb – were not labelled. While the meats with higher surface temperatures did not always show a higher microbial load, the researchers found that those with surface temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees showed the highest levels of surface contamination.
While the FDA currently has not released any guidance for industry regarding these home delivery meal kits, they are reportedly studying issues related to food safety and integrity of boxed kits. Until strict food safety standards are established by the regulator, consumers are encouraged to be cautious when it comes to ordering these ready-to-cook meal kits.