CHICAGO — A Rutgers University professor Thursday poured some cold water on those trendy ready-to-cook dinner packages being delivered to homes across America, especially those with meat included.
Speaking on the final day of the 2017 Food Safety Summit in a session on “Home Delivery,” the professor of human ecology presented results of a Rutgers-Tennessee State University study that looked into the integrity of home-delivered dinners. Professor Bill Hallman said researchers placed orders for delivery of 169 meal kits, including entrees of 271 meat items, 235 seafood items, 133 game items, and 39 poultry items. What the researchers found raised concerns about pathogens, packaging, labeling and cold-chain integrity.
The study also involved 1,002 interviews with consumers, and review of 427 domestic food delivery vendor websites. Consumers were found to be a trusting lot as 95 percent said they thought these products are safe. But the Rutgers-TSU research found the products are likely to be left outside for eight or more hours before they are opened and refrigerated. Only 5 percent require a signature upon delivery.
FedEx, UPS and the U.S. Postal Service all specifically disclaim responsibility for the integrity of perishable products, according to Hallman. The vendors using those services also disclaim responsibility if timely deliveries are not made. Only 42 percent of the food companies doing home deliveries provide any food safety information on their websites, and researchers said it was both hard to find and often inaccurate.
Hallman said one vendor told consumers: “Your bison meat may be thawed by the time it gets to you. Touch the meat and if it is cool to the touch your order is in good condition.” The professor said “cool to the touch” is not a food safety standard.
Surface temperatures on products the researchers received ranged from minus 23 degrees for items packed in dry ice to 75 degrees, often when gel packs were used as the coolant. Hallman said surface temperatures varied significantly among products in the same shipment and even on different locations on the same product. Nearly 47 percent of the 684 items researchers ordered arrived with surface temperatures above 40 degrees, rendering them unsafe to consume.
The packages often lacked proper dunnage or the packing materials to keep product in place next to the coolant, researchers found. Labeling was also an issue, with ground beef, lamb and pork in the same shipment arriving without labels.
The researchers also tested the meat, poultry and seafood products they received in the meal kits. Hallman said pathogen microbial loads varied widely and that the relationship between pathogen load and product temperature was not always linear.
Hallman said items arriving with surface temperatures of 60 to 70 degrees had “microbial loads off the charts.”
Glenda Lewis, with FDA’s retail food protection staff, said the agency is studying the issue, but has not yet issued any guidance on home delivery.
At this point, however, home delivery of dinner kits is the Wild West with consumers leading the way.
(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)