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Time bombs: Carriers, shippers do little to protect perishables

TAMPA, FL — Described by a top Walmart executive as a mega trend that is redefining food safety, home delivery of perishable foods is a mega disaster in the making if businesses don’t step up and do the right thing.

Part of the problem is packaging. Part of the problem is transportation. Part of the problem is perception. All of the solutions are within reach, but with virtually no regulations covering virtual food sales, consumers are at the mercy of profiteers.

The hot topic of keeping food cold was center stage Monday at the Tampa Convention Center when representatives from government, academia and business discussed “Perishable Foods Delivered to Homes via Common Carriers: Safe of Sorry” during a symposium at the annual meeting of the International Association for Food Protection. About 3,500 people from around the world are registered for the four-day conference and trade show.

“It’s here, so let’s figure out how to do it safely,” said Frank Yiannas, Walmart’s vice president for food safety. “Don’t let a new business model outpace standards, controls and prevention.

“As long as foodborne illness exists any place in the world it can exist every place.”

Yiannas issued a call to action during his presentation, urging businesses engaged in home delivery of perishable foods to demand packaging innovations that include time and temperature monitoring and tamper-evident seals to protect their customers.

“Twenty percent of food will be sold online by 2025,” Yiannas said, adding that projections show 70 percent of consumers will be buying at least some of their food on the internet by then.

Frank Yiannas

He compared home delivery of foods in the 2020s to the proliferation of drive-through windows of the 1980s. But the convenience of grocery shopping from home comes with big risks that most consumers don’t yet comprehend.

William Hallman, a Rutgers University professor who is chairman of the school’s Department of Human Ecology, went a step further in his presentation.

“Consumers don’t perceive a risk and they aren’t looking for it,” Hallman said during the session Monday, expressing cautious optimism. “It is possible to do this, though. You can do it safely.

“Industry should be proactive and pack (home-delivered foods) for the worst case scenario, not the best case scenario, which is what they are doing now.”

Hallman and researchers at Tennessee State University joined forces on a project funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to examine food safety issues related to home-delivered proteins, aka meat, fish and poultry. They quickly discovered they were examining a moving target, which is one of the factors contributing to the hazards of home delivery of perishable foods.

When the scientists started their project, they identified about 500 websites offering raw meat, fish and poultry for home delivery. By the end of the research project, 73 of those operations had “disappeared,” Hallman said, with new online businesses popping up as fast as the others had dissolved into the internet ether.

William Hallman

“There are very few barriers to these businesses,” Hallman said. “And the parcels being sent by them are not treated any differently that other products being delivered by FedEx and others.”

The research project involved interviews with more than 1,000 consumers and 160 orders of raw meat and fish. Half were sent to Rutgers and half were sent to Hallman’s counterparts at Tennessee State. The scientists documented the condition of the parcels upon receipt and took 10 temperature readings of each product.

Almost half of the food orders — 47 percent — arrived at temperatures above 40 degrees F. That’s the top limit of the safe temperature zone where pathogens such as E. coli and Salmonella thrive. Some of the foods were measured at 75 degrees, he said.

Researchers discovered a number of other problems, including:

  • Gel packs, which are a popular method used by shippers to keep food cold, just don’t work in the online/mail-order format;
  • Containers used to ship perishable foods are often much larger than necessary and 63 percent did not have packing materials to fill the empty space, which compromises temperature control measures;
  • More than two-thirds of the shipments — 72 percent — came with dry ice, but the majority did not have any warning labels or handling information to help consumers avoid skin damage and poisoning;
  • Only 37 percent of the deliveries had visible information indicating the parcels contained perishable foods;
  • Only 25 percent had food safety information inside the containers; and
  • Some foods, primarily fish and fish products, did not have any labeling of any kind.

Compounding the problems in some cases were statements on websites and in the food parcels that provided so-called food safety advice that actually increased the danger to consumers.

Hellman cited instructions on some products that directed consumers to touch the raw meat when they received it to check the temperature, advising that if it is cool to the touch, it is safe to eat.

Adding to the problems for consumers, Hallman said, is the fact that most of the businesses offering home delivery do not have contact information on their websites for consumers if they have complaints or questions.

The federal government is attempting to help on that point, according to Melanie Abley of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. She said the Consumer Complaint Monitoring System is a first line of defense in the fight for better food safety in the mail-order food arena.

“We have gotten complaints about meat juices leaking on to other foods, temperature abuses and cooking instructions that don’t reach the correct temperatures to kill pathogens,” Abley said.

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