The On-Going Safety of Home Delivered Meal Kits
Don't Get More Than You Ordered!
A Not-So-Special Delivery.
Did you resolve to eat healthier in 2019? Vow to eat out less?
Did you promise to prepare wholesome meals at home for your family? Did you plan on using fresh, organic ingredients?
Did one of the many home delivery services seem to fit the bill? In addition to convenience there is added bonus of eliminating much of the grocery shopping required? Since I first wrote about this a year ago the number of companies jumping into the meal kit fray has sky-rocketed. It’s a brilliant concept. Home delivered meal kits can provide healthy ingredients to keep your healthy eating on track in the coming year. Brought right to your door. What’s not to love?
But, don't eat food from a home-delivered meal kit until you read this.
Outsourcing Eating Healthy
Raise your hand if you, or someone you know, has made the following complaints:
It's SO time consuming to have fresh ingredients fresh on hand when you’re ready to cook
Organic foods are expensive and strain weekly food budgets
Fresh food seems to spoil before you get around to cooking it.
Busy days, long commutes, crowded family schedules and mounting fatigue leave little time left for food prep - all that chopping, peeling and measuring required
You really want to do this. You made that 2019 resolution. It’s only February.
You’ve decided 2019 is your year to eat right. You love the idea of providing a fresh, home-cooked meal for your family. Price, time and effort make it seem impossible.
You could give up and grab fast, processed food - because it’s sooooo easy and quick. Or is there another way to eat right at lightening speed?
Healthy, Sustainable and Convenient
In a perfect world, amid your daily grind, your meals would include this:
Easy, foolproof recipes that can be put 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, you’d sit at the table, with your family, discussing everyone's day. Sounds so retro but SO appealing. Is it an unattainable ideal?
It's not a dream anymore. The magic has become real. Home meal delivery programs such as Blue Apron, Home Chef, Plated, and HelloFresh have become increasingly popular. Is it too good to be true? I tried one of the services. Opening the boxes was bit like Christmas surprise. Trying new dishes every week made meal prep a wonderous, exciting endeavor - far from the old drudgery of the same old same old.
Then frightening headlines began to trend in 2017 and 2018. There were safety issues with home delivery kits. Keep reading to the end of the post for a free, helpful resource I developed to assist you in safe eating.
Safety Issues with Meal Deliveries
The Harsh Reality Of The U. S. Food Delivery Business
The biggest alarm bell rang out from a study done by Rutgers andTennessee State University. The results were presented in May at the 2017 Food Safety Summit by professor William K. Hallman, PhD, Professor and Chair, Department of Human Ecology, Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences. 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 about the study and report at the Summit Here and one from The Denver Channel HERE.
The study results were not encouraging:
Data on the meats and poultry waved a big, red flag. There were safety problems with the food packaging and maintaining food at cold enough temperatures to prevent bacterial growth. Put in simple terms - they found evidence of pathogens that cause food poisoning.
The consumer interviews showed 95% of people believed the meals to be safe.
Reviewers found company websites contain statements denying responsibility for meals not delivered timely. Less than half, 42%, provided food safety information on their sites. If the info was present, it was often 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 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 vendors 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, perishable food is considered unsafe for eating. The temperatures of deliveries varied all over the place - from a frigid minus 23 degrees to a warm 75 degrees. The packages in the colder range were packed in dry ice while the warmer ones used gel packs. 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 scary numbers off the charts!
What Makes Food Unsafe To Eat?
Certain foods are perishable. These are foods that can spoil if not refrigerated. Non-perishable food has a longer shelf life and don’t require refrigeration. All food can go bad over time but not all food can grow the bugs that can make you sick.
When will food become a vessel of food poisoning? The math is 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 and how much 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 the USDA food safety site. Topics include safe storage times, food poisoning signs and safe food prep. The USDA website can be found 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 convenient for you, I pulled together information from various sources, including the USDA in a guide summarizing 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.
Steps To Improve the Safety Of Your Home Delivery Meals
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. Here are the steps you can take to ensure your safety and the health of those you love.
1. Insure Safe 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 - one 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. Maintain Safe 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. To be confident that the temperature of your food has been maintained at a safe level you must be 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 is the time to check the package’s temperature. Knowing the package’s 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. Cook Using Safe Food Temperatures and Heat
Even if refrigerated safely and promptly, food must be cooked with a specific 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 any 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. Prevent Meal Kit and Food Fluid Leakage and Contamination
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 you need a sturdy food thermometer that can be calibrated. 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 for home food safety. Read on to learn how to calibrate it to insure an accurate reading. There are more expensive digital versions - but, again, any style 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. In order to get a true reading you must use a thermometer that has an adjustable temperature reading. 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.
Hold 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 from the mountains to sea level will affect your thermometer. The same applies to 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 boiling and freezing point temperatures 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 reliable, sturdy 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
If you receive a meal delivery that you suspect or find to be unsafe report it immediately to the vendor so that systems will improve for customers
Final Thoughts on Living Better by Eating Healthy
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. I believe, more vendors entering and competing in 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 for and maintain the safe packaging and temperature of deliveries.
Use the rules for safe home food prep when organizing, cooking and serving meals.
My Experiences With Food Delivery Kits
A friend gave me a coupon to try a free meal delivery service. She used the program and sang it's praises. Both her, and her husband, are health professionals and vigorous 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. My only complaint was the short list of choices. There’s a non-adventurous, picky eater in my household whose range of food likes is limited so that makes us a menu tough customer.
The free trial program expired and I had not renewed for a paid program. Then 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 which companies use 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 For Living Better
Cooking won't prevent food poisoning if food hasn’t been maintained at a safe, cool temperature - heating won't kill viruses or bacteria.
Refrigerating food won't prevent food poisoning if the food has already 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 by looks or smell.
If food stays outside awhile and gets refrigerated before an accurate temperature check - there's no way to know if it’s 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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