If you’re thinking about ordering a foodie gift basket online to send to a loved one this holiday season, you might want to reconsider. Research funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that there are some serious food safety risks associated with ordering raw meat, poultry, game and seafood online. Online sales of these products with home delivery make up a large and growing portion of the market. A portion of the new research shows that one in 10 Americans purchased or received perishable meat, poultry, game or seafood from an online purveyor in the past year. There are more than 500 vendors in the U.S. that sell raw meat online directly to consumers. These stores allow consumers to purchase food products they can’t get in their hometown such as gourmet items, Kosher and Halal items, regional specialties, game products or exotic meats. They also make popular gifts. Thanks to a grant from USDA, researchers at Rutgers University and Tennessee State University were able to study a number of aspects of online meat, poultry, game and seafood sales. They surveyed consumers about their experiences and expectations regarding perishable products ordered online, analyzed the food safety information available on raw meat vendors’ websites, and ordered hundreds of products to observe packaging, measure temperatures and test for pathogens. Unsafe temperatures Their overall concern from the findings was that the packages don’t keep meat at a safe temperature below 40 degrees F. Bacteria grow most rapidly in the range of temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees F. When shipping raw food, packers should include some kind of coolant (e.g., gel packs, dry ice, wet ice) and dunnage (foam peanuts, crumpled newspaper, air bags) to protect items by preventing them from shifting around in the box and to improve temperature stability by reducing the amount of air to be kept in a certain temperature range. It can get as high as 140 degrees F in closed, parked carrier vehicles during the summer in southern climates, so proper packaging is really important for temperature control. There is also an issue with the common delivery policy of “signature release,” which means that packages can be delivered without requiring the recipient’s signature. In these cases, packages may be left at an outside door for long periods of time, possibly resulting in temperature abuse. The researchers analyzed the websites for 427 U.S.-based vendors selling one or more uncooked perishable meat directly to consumers and shipping through a common carrier such as FedEx, UPS or the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). They found that only 5 percent specifically require a signature. For their consumer survey, the researchers screened more than 9,900 panelists, and the 1,002 who had purchased or received meat products within the previous year were asked to participate. Of those who didn’t think their product was delivered at a safe temperature, only 21 percent used a thermometer. Only a quarter of the participants said they had to sign for their package. The team also looked at the websites to see if they provided information on safe handling, storage, thawing, and cooking, including safe cooking temperatures. Only 180 of the sites had some food safety information, and it was not always easy to find. Further, some of the sites provided inaccurate information such as recommending thawing meat in a tub of hot water (the correct ways are in the refrigerator, in cold water changed every 30 minutes, or in the microwave), suggesting that grass-fed beef is “much safer to eat rare than conventional beef” because “the likelihood of E. coli contamination is extremely low,” or that meat is safe to eat if it is cool to the touch. Sampling products The researchers ordered 684 food items received in 169 shipments. In order to best reflect purchasing behaviors, they ordered mainly ground meats and high-end meat and seafood such as filet mignon and lobster. Almost all of the shipments were sent via FedEx or UPS, and they came from all over the country to Tennessee and Rutgers. The mean transit time was 32 hours. Upon arrival, the team examined the boxes for food safety labels and integrity, took pictures of the unpacking process, weighed the products and coolants, took 10 surface temperature readings for each product, and tested each product for the presence of indicator organism and specific pathogens. Arrival temperatures ranged from -23 degrees F to 75 degrees F. Almost half of the samples arrived in the danger zone (above 40 degrees F) and would be considered unsafe to consume. The readings also didn’t take into account products that may have been in the danger zone during transit but dropped back below 40 degrees F by arrival. Only 37 percent of the shipments ordered for the study displayed food safety information on the outside of the box and only a quarter had the information inside. The researchers argue that the unsafe temperatures, combined with the lack of safety information, places consumers at an increased risk for foodborne illness. Despite the troubling findings from the sampled products, 95 percent of the team’s consumer survey participants believed that purchasing fresh or frozen meat, poultry, and/or seafood products online and having them delivered is safe. Seventy-two packages contained dry ice, but less than half of these had a label indicating the fact, and only a third provided information on safe handling and disposing of dry ice. While not necessarily a food safety concern, a lack of labeling could pose a health risk since dry ice can cause severe skin damage. While presenting their findings at the 2014 Consumer Food Safety Education Conference in Arlington, VA, on Dec. 5, researchers William Hallman, Angela Senger-Mersich and Sandria Godwin did not provide the results of the microorganism testing. Research recommendations The researchers emphasized that shipping perishable items directly to consumers can be safe if done correctly and that they received plenty of packages during the study that were perfectly fine. “I’m interested in helping people do this better,” Hallman said. “I’m not interested in putting people out of business.” The researchers recommend requiring registration of online vendors, adding temperature sensors to packages, educating shippers on best packaging practices, and resolving liability issues. They say it’s important for vendors to remember that once a package of perishable products leaves their facility, it’s treated like any other package. It’s best to package products based on “worst case” scenarios such as extreme temperatures and transit delays. Some of their recommendations to industry are:

  • Ensure that the shipping container, dunnage, and coolants used are sufficient to keep the product at a safe temperature.
  • Include information educating consumers on the proper handling of the product to ensure their safety and customer satisfaction. Make this information obvious in packaging and on the website. Double-check printed materials containing food safety information with FDA and USDA resources to ensure accuracy.
  • If using dry ice as a coolant, be sure to include warnings and handling instructions for the consumer on both the outside and inside of the shipping container.
  • Urge consumers to contact the company if they have any questions or concerns about the products they have received.
  • Develop reasonable reimbursement policies.

As the last line of defense against foodborne illness, consumers should use a thermometer to ensure that their food arrives at a safe temperature of 40 degrees F or below, the researchers say, and then immediately store products in the refrigerator or freezer. They add that customers should contact the company if there is any doubt about a product’s safety. This is the first research done on raw meat, poultry, game or seafood from online vendors, Hallman said. “We have baseline data now. It’s a place to move forward from,” he added. The research from Rutgers and Tennessee State will be published next spring in Food Protection Trends.