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Who monitors meal kit safety?

Robert Nelson

Meal kits are all the rage right now. With many of us continually searching for healthy meals that are as convenient as possible, what could be better than having all the ingredients for a home-cooked meal delivered directly to your home? But shipping perishable foods in a way that keeps them safe and fresh can be a challenge.

This week on “Take Care,” Don Schaffner, a food microbiologist at Rutgers University, discusses the safety precautions meal kit consumers should be aware of. Schaffner was part of a team funded by the USDA to study the microbial safety of mail order foods, and he's currently involved in developing best practices and guidance for companies that ship perishable foods via the mail. He also co-hosts a podcast on microbial food safety at foodsafetytalk.com.

Schaffner says the problems encountered when shipping perishable foods are tough to solve. No one wants food to go bad en route and make customers sick.

So the meal kit companies need to consider a lot of factors, Schaffner says, in order to ensure the food being shipped remains fresh:

  • The perishability of the food itself
  • The kind of box and packing materials they ship it in
  • The kind of cooling device – dry ice, gel packs or regular ice
  • The nature of the delivery service
  • Clearly labeling the outside of the package that its perishable

Schaffner says it’s the food company’s responsibility to make sure its product is shipped in a way that ensures it is safe to eat upon arrival. Common shipping carriers -- like UPS, FedEx or the U.S. Postal Service – don’t take responsibility for handling perishable food.
So is it safe to eat food that’s traveled via a non-refrigerated shipping truck? Schaffner says, like many other issues regarding food safety, “it’s complicated, and it depends.” Because there are so many variables, there’s really no definitive answer.

But Schaffner says the big food delivery and meal kit companies do take food safety very seriously.

“The companies that I would worry more about would be the smaller companies that maybe don’t have the technical expertise or the technical know-how to manage all those risks. Not that a small company couldn’t do it, but there are some significant technical challenges that have to be addressed,” Schaffner said.

Schaffner says the obvious red flag a consumer should look out for when they open the meal kit box that has just arrived at their door is the state of the refrigerant and the food’s temperature. If you open the package and the ice packs or gel packs are completely liquid, that’s a telltale sign the food may have gone bad or is going bad. Perishable food items like meat should not be above 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Also, if you’ve received meat, fish or poultry, and the package has leaked meat juices, that signals there may be pathogens and they may have spread. If there’s fruit or vegetables or other raw, loose food also in the box, you may have cross contamination.

Schaffner says it’s really the shipping of the food that’s the biggest concern. Most meal kit companies are going to be regulated in the jurisdiction where the food is prepared. If they are a retail-type operation, they’re going to be inspected by a local public health department just like a restaurant or super. If they are a food processing company, they’re going to be inspected by the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture or a state food safety agency.

But once the food goes into the package and gets shipped, that’s where the regulatory jurisdiction gets murky.

The good news is that the committee Schaffner is a part of hopes to have draft guidelines for shipping food by next spring.