More Problems for Meal Delivery Services: “Microbial Loads off the Charts’

A new study looks at food safety and meal delivery services,
and the results are damning. How safe and healthy are meal
kits?

There has been a lot of discussion over the past year over
whether or not meal kit delivery services are the solution we
need for our messed up relationship with food.

Meal kits like those provided by companies like Purple Carrot,
Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, Plated, SunBasket, and more promote a
lot of things we stand behind: high-quality ingredients,
reducing food waste, and helping people learn to cook (or at
least cook at home, while following a very detailed recipe). We
love all of these things about meal kits, but there are few things
NOT to love too
. A new study reveals some of the major
problems for meal delivery services.

A new study looks at food safety and meal delivery services, and the results are damning. How safe and healthy are meal kits?

Most recently,
Food Safety News
 reported on shipping issues
with meal kit services and called into question
their ‘cold chain integrity’ (the assurance that the food
has been packed, stored, and shipped at the proper
temperature). Professor Bill Hallman spoke at
the 2017 Food Safety Summit about a study that included
169 meal kits (or home delivery meal services, whatever you
want to call it), most all of them including meat. The
research, “raised concerns about pathogens, packaging, labeling
and cold-chain integrity.”

Study: Food Safety and Meal Delivery Services

The study was telling in many ways. First, the vast majority of
consumers felt that the food was safe (95%), but the study
found that most of the meal kit deliveries were ‘left outside
for eight or more hours before they are opened and refrigerated
[and only] 5% require a signature upon delivery.” But how are
consumers supposed to know what is safe? The study mentioned
that only 41% of the meal kit companies provide any food safety
information on their sites.

Professor Hallman gave an example of how consumers were told
that if the meat was ‘cool to the touch’ it was still fine to
consume… even though anyone with any knowledge of food safety
knows that ‘cool to the touch’ is not a proper way to determine
that food is safe. The study also showed that some food arrived
unlabeled, and since each food has its own cooking
temperatures, this is another huge food safety issue.

This section quoted from
Food Safety News
is perhaps the most damning:

“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.”  

Professor Hallman further explained that any food
arriving at, “60 to 70 degrees had “microbial loads off the
charts.”

Tellingly, FedEx, UPS and the U.S. Postal Service do not make
any claims on the safety of their deliveries, which I think is
actually quite smart. If the company is not ensuring that the
food is preserved along with way, it shouldn’t be up to the
delivery service to be held responsible for that.

This study specifically looked at meat-based meals, so you
could avoid some of these concerns by ordering only vegetarian
or vegan meals from these services or choosing a meal kit
delivery that only does vegan options, which could lead to a
higher level of microbial safety since those potentially
contaminated items will not have been prepared in the same
location with animal foods.

A new study looks at food safety and meal delivery services, and the results are damning. How safe and healthy are meal kits?

What are the Other Problems with Meal Kits?

I’ve written previously about how
meal kits
are actually not the magic solution to
the food issues we face in this country. As I wrote in
late 2016, meal kits have plenty of issues:

  • Healthier (but not really healthy) options:
    Yes, if you’re cooking meal kits at home you’re likely eating
    better food than if you ate at a restaurant every night, but
    so many of the meal kits are very meat-heavy. Even the
    Academy
    of Nutrition and Dietetics
     recommends
    eating less meat to improve your health
    , and enjoying a
    new meat-based meal option every night of the week doesn’t
    really help consumers make the best health choices.
  • Consumer Retention: Meal kit companies
    have raised millions of dollars in investment
    – Campbell
    Soup
     just invested $10million in a new delivery
    service called Chef’d, while
    Unilever
    recently invested $9million in paleo-focused
    delivery service SunBasket. But the level of customer
    retention is pretty dismal: most companies offer sample meals
    to try to gather new customers, but as Mother Jones
    reported, 90% of customers drop out within six months.
  • Sustainabilty Failings: While these meal
    delivery services can help reduce food waste (by serving only
    the exact amount of food needed per recipe), each ingredient
    comes packed individually leaving heaps of waste that is only
    marginally recycleable. Lora Kolodny of
    TechCrunch uses the ‘Farm
    Egg
    ‘ as example of this excessive waste. This foods are
    also prepped at facilities and then shipped across the
    country, leading to a large shipping footprint too.
  • Human Resource Issues:
    Buzzfeed
    made waves with their in-depth report about how
    rapid growth at Blue Apron’s California facility
    has created tensions between staff members and between staff
    and management.

I have never subscribed to a meal kit service, so my feelings
on these offerings are really based on what I’ve read around
the interwebs and my understanding of the food system as a
whole. I like to cook, and love to grocery shop, so I know I’m
not the target market for these offerings.

Because while it sounds like an awesome solution to busy folks
without time to plan, shop, and prep for a full meal, I can’t
not question how long this trend will continue. Sure, the
investment keeps rolling in, but if they can’t keep customers,
and if (hopefully not) someone gets sick from their ‘cool to
the touch’ food arrivals, what is going to happen to these new
food giants?

What do you think is the future of the meal delivery services
like Blue Apron, Purple Carrot, Hello Fresh, and SunBasket?

Images from Purple Carrot (the only all-vegan meal kit
service)


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