The Safety of Home Delivered Meal Kits
Don't Get More Than You Ordered!
A Not-So-Special Delivery
WAIT! Don't eat food from a home-delivered meal kit - until you read this. You may get something else that you didn't order.
You want to cook fresh and delicious meals at home. So, you signed up for a home meal delivery service. You want to use only healthy, organic ingredients. And that's what you got! Brought right to your front door!
So, what else will you get with that order?
You could also get food poisoning.
The Busy Life Delimma
Raise your hand if you, or someone you know, has complained:
- It's difficult to keep ingredients fresh and on hand for cooking.
- Costs are high for planning weekly menus using organic foods. Everything seems to spoil before you cook it.
- Long busy days, commutes and mounting fatigue equals little time left for chopping, peeling and measuring.
But you really want to do this! You love the idea of fresh, home-cooked meals. Price, time and effort make seem it impossible. So, you give up and grab fast, processed food - because it’s sooooo easy and quick.
But, if you could have just one wish, from the Magic Meal Genie, it would include…
- Easy, foolproof recipes that can be mixed together fast.
- Perfectly prepped, chopped and portioned ingredients.
- Seasonal farm-to-table vegetables, spices, meat, fish and vegetarian choices.
- Unique selections, similar to those from fine, artisanal restaurants.
- Delivery - fresh and straight to your door.
- Meals priced at a few dollars per person
And, just like that, voila… the Genie grants you a home-cooked meal. The next thing you know, you're sitting, at the table, with your family, discussing everyone's day.
But, it's not a dream anymore. The magic has become real. Home meal delivery programs such as Blue Apron, Plated, and Hello Fresh (and now Amazon) have become increasingly popular. What’s not to love? I've tried one of the services and liked it.
You've read the recent, frightening headlines. You've heard there were safety issues with home delivery kits. Yet, you love those fresh meal deliveries. Never fear, I've got a workaround for you!
The New News is Amaz(on)ing
By now, you've probably heard that Amazon bought Whole Foods. But, did you know that Amazon registered a trademark on July 6, 2017, for a home delivery meal kit service? Their brand statement was published as "We do the prep. You be the chef". Catchy! The trademark application was for "prepared food kits...ready for cooking and assembly as a meal".
Soon after I started writing this post the news broke. With Amazon joining the fray, the meal kit delivery service got too legit to quit. And Amazon in the market means the meal kit is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Big dollars on the line may prompt much needed improvements to the system.
It's made this post all the more relevant and necessary. Because no one wants to get violently ill!
Safety Issues with Meal Deliveries
The Harsh Reality Of The U. S. Food Delivery Business
Those initial alarming headlines came from a study done at Rutgers-Tennessee State University. The results were presented on the last day of the 2017 Food Safety Summit by professor Bill Hallman. The research team ordered 169 home delivered meal kits. They looked at 271 meat portions, 235 seafood portions, 133 game portions and 39 poultry portions. Also, a thousand interviews were performed to determine what consumers had to say about meal delivery programs. In addition, reviews of the websites of 427 U.S. food delivery companies were included in their finding. You can read an article on the study HERE. And here's another look at the problem HERE. Keep reading to the end of the post for a free, helpful resource I developed to assist you in safe eating.
The study results were not encouraging:
- Food item reviews on the meats and poultry waved a big, red flag. There were safety problems with the food packaging and maintenance of food at correct cold temperatures. And they found evidence of pathogens that cause food poisoning.
- The consumer interviews showed 95% of people believed the meals to be safe. We are a trusting lot.
- Reviews of company websites revealed vendor statements denying responsibility for meals not delivered timely. Less than half, 42%, provided food safety information on their sites. If info was present, it was often both, inaccurate and difficult to locate.
The study also showed:
- On average, boxes were left outside for 8 hours or more before consumers refrigerated them. This occurred during every season of the year - even in the hottest months of summer.
- Only 5% of meal kits require a signature when delivered.
- FedEx, UPS, U.S. Postal Service and the meal kit programs all state they are not responsible for perishable products.
- Researchers showed about 47%, of kits were delivered with temperatures greater than 40 degrees. At this temperature, the meals are considered unsafe for eating. The temperatures of deliveries ranged from minus 23 degrees to 75 degrees. The packages in the colder range were packed in dry ice while the warmer ones used gel packs to keep them cool. Obviously, dry ice is the superior packing choice.
- The number of pathogens in the thawing-on-the-doorstep meals differed greatly. But those kits that arrived with temperatures of 60-70 degrees had pathogens with numbers off the charts. Yikes!
What Makes Food Unsafe To Eat?
It's simple. Presence of enough pathogens = unsafe food. Presence of a lot of pathogens = food poisoning, better known by the current term, food-borne illness.
Pathogens that contaminate food can be both bacterial and viral. The most common bugs are Salmonella, Listeria, E. coli, Campylobacter, Norovirus (Norwalk Virus) and Clostridium perfringens. How severe or the type of symptoms that occur depends on which pathogen you ingest. About one in six people, each year in the U.S., gets a food-borne illness.
If you've had food poisoning, you never forget it!
Bacteria or viruses can begin to grow within 2 hours, if food remains at warm temperatures. Even at room temperature, bacteria can multiply. In high temperatures, greater than 90 degrees, bacterial or viral growth occurs even faster, sometimes in less than an hour.
Of course, really rotten food looks and smells awful. But, early in the process, you cannot see or smell food thats become contaminated.
Resources To Help Prevent Food Poisoning
The FDA is currently studying the home delivery meal system but hasn’t issued an official advisory yet. You can see what the government has to say about the safety of home meals kits HERE.
The U.S. government has some wonderful resources on their food safety site. Topics include safe storage times, food poisoning signs and safe food prep. The USDA website is full of useful information - you can find the USDA site HERE. There’s also a useful app called Food Keeper on the site HERE or available on iTunes HERE and Android HERE. To make it easy for you, I pulled information from various sources, including the USDA. I put it together in a guide that summarizes the most important info - all in one place. There are even details for wedding caterers!
You can download that free Home Food Safety Guide below.
So What’s a Family To Do?
Meal delivery kits filled a needed void for busy, health-minded people or adventurous gourmets looking to try new recipes with fresh, organic ingredients.
But now, with good reason, you're worried about getting sick. All is not lost. Here's what you can do to ensure your safety and the health of those you love.
Steps To Improve the Safety Of Your Home Delivery Meals
1. Meal Kit Delivery Timing
- Kits must be refrigerated immediately
The Rutgers-Tennesse State University study showed deliveries were left outside for 8 hours or more before being refrigerated. Check the fine print of your choice of delivery program.
Most of the big programs, like Hello Fresh and Blue Apron, offer a 8 to 12 hour window only. Amazon is proposing a 2 hour window of delivery in certain areas. Most mail carriers offer a service, or app, that will alert you with real-time delivery notices. If you sign up for a meal service, look at options for tracking your package and determine the best time for delivery - that will allow immediate refrigeration. If you are unable to be home, then make arrangements for someone to pick up the delivery at the time of delivery and refrigerate it immediately.
2. Meal Kit Temperature
- Food must be checked for maintenance of safe temperature
Optimally, unless its an obvious frozen block, delivered food should be checked for a safe temperature. This should be done with a calibrated thermometer at the time of delivery. A calibrated thermometer is one that's been checked and adjusted to register the accurate temperature. It’s important to be confident of the temperature of your food. Unless you're positive of your thermometer's accuracy, calibrating is a necessary step. See below for instructions to calibrate a thermometer.
At the time of delivery - means that as soon as you receive your meal kit - check the package’s temperature. Checking for the temperature before refrigerating will alert you to whether your box has or has not maintained the appropriate temperature until delivery. And, if someone else is picking up your delivery you may need to loan out your accurate thermometer in order to be sure your food is safe.
The rule of thumb, according to the FDA, is to avoid the “danger zone”. Cue the Top Gun theme song and keep reading for zone guidelines.
The danger zone is greater than 41 degrees. If a delivered meal, or any food, remains at this temperature or higher for over 4 hours - it's considered unsafe and should be thrown away. At that 4 hours mark and beyond, the bad bugs begin to grow with ease. This is when the chance of food poisoning ramps up.
3. Meal Kit Cooking and Heat
- Even if refrigerated safely and promptly, cook food with a minimum internal temperature to maintain its safety.
Even if you didn’t cue up Maverick, Goose, and Viper because your food didn’t enter the danger zone you'll still need to follow safe cooking rules.
Be sure to heat meal kit, and other, food high enough and long enough to make it safe to eat. The U.S. Food Safety website is a great resource for kitchen safety. Some guidelines for cooking are listed HERE. Or get my free e-book below on Home Food Safety below. The safety standard for cooking food items to a minimum internal temperature or higher. See the guidelines below for how to get an accurate temperature of your food.
The Minimum Internal Temperature for Safe Cooking
- Chicken, Turkey and all other poultry: 165 degrees (73.9 C)
- Ground meat: 160 degrees (71.1 C)
- Beef, Pork, Veal, Lamb, Ham, Steaks, Chops, Roasts: 145 degrees (62.8C)
- Seafood and Shellfish: 145 degrees (62.8C)
- Leftovers: 165 degrees (73.9 C)
- Casseroles: 165 degrees (73.9 C)
- Eggs: 160 degrees (71.1 C)
4. Meal Kit Leakage
- Do not eat food if raw meat or seafood has leaked into other food items in kit.
Check for meal kit leakage. This rule is short and not-so-sweet: make sure raw meats or seafood have not leaked into other ingredients delivered in the same box. This same standard applies to food shopping - use the plastic bags available at most grocery stores to separate items, or bring your own.
In order to be sure that your home meal kit is safely refrigerated and cooked, a sturdy food thermometer that can be calibrated is a good idea. I did a quick check on-line and found a Taylor Calibration Kitchen Thermometer at KaTom Restaurant Supply, W. W. Grainger Inc, Webstaurant Store and others for around $4.50. A good investment in your home food safety. Read on for how to calibrate it to insure an accurate reading. There are more expensive digital version - but, again, it must have a reset button or means to adjust the temperature. For all types of thermometers - the manner to check for the correct temperature is the same:
How to Calibrate a Food Thermometer to Read the Accurate Temperature
It's important to know the correct temperature of your meal kits. You will use a simple food thermometer. In order to get a true reading you must use a thermometer thats adjustable. It's easy to calibrate when you use the correct type of thermometer.
Use an adjustable, quality cooking or kitchen thermometer. The key is - it must be adjustable. If so, it will have a hex nut or ring under the temperature gauge. This allows you to change the temperature dial if it doesn’t read correctly. You can calibrate it, using one of two easy methods - boiling water or ice water.
Boiling Water Calibration Method
- Fill a pot with water.
- Bring water to a rolling boil.
- Put the thermometer in the boiling water so that the sensor part of the stem is completely under water.
- Don't let thermometer stem touch the sides or bottom of the pot.
- Hold the thermometer in the boiling water for 30 seconds or until the dial stops moving.
- Use the thermometer’s calibration tool or something to grip the hex adjusting nut and turn until the thermometer dial reads 212 degrees F or 100 degrees C. Keep the thermometer in the boiling water while adjusting.
*If you are using a digital thermometer you will press a reset button instead of adjusting a hex nut.
Ice Water Calibration Method
- Fill a 2-quart container with ice.
- Add water to within 1 inch of the top of the container.
- Let the ice water sit for one minute.
- Hold the thermometer in ice water so that the sensor part of the stem is completely under water.
- Don't let thermometer touch the sides or bottom of the container.
- Hold the thermometer in the ice water for 30 seconds or until the dial stops moving.
- Use the thermometer’s calibration tool, or something to grip the hex adjusting nut, and turn until the thermometer dial reads 32 °F or 0 degrees C. Keep thermometer in ice water while adjusting.
*If you are using a digital thermometer you will press a reset button instead of adjusting a hex nut.
You should calibrate your thermometer whenever you:
- Are unsure if its reading the temperature correctly
- Buy a new thermometer
- Are using your thermometer often
- Change altitudes. For example: going mountains the mountains to sea level will affect your thermometer. So will the opposite - going from low to a much higher elevation will do the same.
- Drop or handle your thermometer roughly
- Use your thermometer in a variety of temperatures, such as freezing and then boiling
Altitude Makes A Difference In Temperature Readings
For example: When you are at 0 feet/meters altitude water boils at 212 degrees F or 100 degrees C. But, at 1,000 feet/305 meters it boils at the lower temperature of 210 degrees F or 98.9 C.
The temperature keeps decreasing as altitude increases. Research the temperature for your town's altitude before you calibrate a thermometer.
Attention to the Meal Kit Delivery Vendors!
- For now, the current processes for home meal delivery kits leave a lot of safety issues not addressed.
Busy and working people are unable to be home to refrigerate the deliveries as quickly as needed. A huge part of your market will have difficulty ensuring safe temperature of the kits. Meal kits left outside for long periods would have to be thrown out. And as more people try meal delivery programs the numbers of food borne illnesses will increase unless safety guidelines are put in place. Research is needed into the best packaging possible to keep food colder longer and then implement that type ASAP. Also, could you invent a package temperature reader so that your buyers can know whether the package is safe to cook?
With much gratitude,
Your busy, hard working, money budgeting, safety conscious public
Final Thoughts on Living Better by Eating Healthy Food
Home meal delivery kits fill a need for busy families and gourmets. I believe the Rutgers-Tennessee State University study will create much-needed improvements in perishable packaging and safe delivery processes. More vendors, like Amazon, entering the food delivery market will encourage the industry and the USDA to create and enforce safety guidelines. Home delivered kits will live on, thankfully. Whoop whoop!
But until then, its up to you to ensure the your food safety by storing and cooking food correctly.
Keep Your Home Delivered Meal Kits Safe
- Check and maintain the safety of deliveries.
- Use rules for safe home food prep when preparing, cooking, serving and meals.
My Experiences With Food Delivery Kits
A friend gave me a coupon to try a meal delivery service for free. She used the program and sang it's praises. Both her, and her husband, are health professionals and proponents of a healthy lifestyle. They have two children involved in multiple activities. They were thrilled with the program's organic, fresh ingredients. The speed and ease of getting a healthy meal on the family table added up to a winning combination.
I was thrilled to give it a try. Going online to choose the meals was easy. Because I was working from home, I was able to refrigerate deliveries immediately. The temperature seemed adequate, the cold packs were still frozen and the food appeared chilled. Trying new, unusual recipes added zest to boring meal planning. The prep took very little effort. Everything in the kit was measured, labeled and ready to prepare. It was delicious and fun. We were able to try out fresh, unique meals. And, the price per meal was cost-efficient. The free trial program expired and I had not renewed for a paid program. That was before the headlines erupted.
Sheepish, true confession time...
Even as a nurse with firm knowledge of food safety, I didn't think to check the package temperature. I was caught up in the excitement of this new concept.
Then, I read about the study. Now I would assess the delivery for complete safety - delivery time, temperature and packaging. I'd look into gel packs vs. dry ice delivery. Now, the choices in programs has exploded. I'm researching and considering signing up again. This time I would, definitely, utilize the safety knowledge I've discussed here.
Final Tips to Remember to Live Better
Cooking won't prevent food poisoning if food has gotten too warm - heating won't kill viruses or bacteria.
Refrigerating food won't prevent food poisoning if the food has gotten too warm - refrigerating won't kill those bugs if they've already contaminated the food.
There's no way to be sure if food has become contaminated.
If food stays outside awhile and gets refrigerated before an accurate temperature check - there's no way to know if its got too warm beforehand.
So, evaluate your lifestyle and decide if the meal delivery kits work for you...safely.
For another article on keeping your food and family safe - See my post of which fish are safe to eat and which have high levels of toxic mercury HERE.
Tell us about your experiences with home meal deliveries in the Comment Section below. Please share on social media if you think this information could help someone. Thanks for reading!
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