By the bioMérieux Connection Editors
A growing number of Americans rely on home delivery for prepared restaurant meals, grocery store deliveries and ready-to-prepare meals. While takeout pizza and General Tso’s chicken are hardly new, app-based services like DoorDash, Uber Eats, and GrubHub have turned meals that were traditionally sit-down meals consumed almost exclusively in restaurants into takeout mainstays.
But is this food safe?
Several thousand food safety specialists gathered July 21–24 in Louisville, Kentucky for the annual meeting of the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP), the leading global food safety conference in North America. The 3-day event featured presentations and discussions on dozens of topics that impact the safety of the food chain, but one of the more interesting topics—and one that is very relevant to modern consumers—is the mega-trend of online food services and the safety of this food.
The symposium, titled, “Home Food Delivery: The Last Mile is Not What It Used to be,” was sponsored by Diversey, Inc., a provider of cleaning and hygiene products to the hospitality, food and beverage, and food service sectors. Panelists for the discussion included representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Amazon, Uber, The Kroger Company, and Rutgers University.
The focus on this panel discussion was the threat to food quality and safety in the “last mile” that can occur before meals, ready-to-cook meals and groceries arrive at your door. Reports of moldy food and half-eaten meals are becoming common, but the safety risks that can occur as a result of the growing utilization of home food delivery are broad and fall into four key areas:
- Maintaining Food Temperature
- Delivery Time Safety Limits
- Cross Contamination
- Food Security and Product Tampering
“Today your groceries can be delivered directly to your door, you can have a robot meet you with your groceries, you can have food delivered to another location for pick up, you can get meal kits or specialized components delivered,” according to IAFP. “And thanks to third-party delivery services, you can get ready-to-eat meals delivered from almost any restaurant. All of these different ways for consumers to get food to their homes and onto their plates raises a number of food safety questions. Questions include: Is there adequate temperature control of food during the delivery process? Who is responsible for ensuring food safety and proper temperature control? Does home delivery impact the shelf life of the food?”
Study Suggests Sector May Not Be Meeting FDA Safety Standards
In addition to the potential dangers from the varied forms of home food delivery, the panelists discussed the current regulation that covers these industries as well as methods to mitigate these risks. According to the FDA FSMA Rules on the Sanitary Transportation Of Human and Animal Foods, Section 1.908 (3): “All transportation operations must be conducted under such conditions and controls necessary to prevent the food from becoming filthy, putrid, decomposed or otherwise unfit for food, or being rendered injurious to health from any source during transportation operations.”
A recent study by Rutgers University and Tennessee State University strongly indicates that the nascent ready-to-prepare sector is not meeting these standards. Ready-to-prepare meals are kits that include all the ingredients required to make a multi-course meal. Some of the market leaders include as Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, and Home Chef. These kits include perishable foods delivered to consumers via carriers like FedEx, UPS, and USPS, all of whom disclaim any responsibility for the integrity and quality of perishable food products, according to the researchers.
According to the authors, the rise of e-commerce and ubiquity of online ordering has dramatically increased the prevalence of home-delivered perishable foods. These foods include groceries, fresh produce, meat, poultry, seafood, cheese, meal preparation kits, and prepared meals.
The Rutgers-TSU researchers ordered 169 meal kits, including 271 with meat entrees, 235 with seafood items, 133 with game entrees, and 39 with poultry entrees. They found that the products were likely to be left outside for eight or more hours before being refrigerated by the consumers. They also found that just 5 percent of the services required a signature upon delivery.
Their primary finding was that nearly half of the orders (47%), of the 684 perishable food items delivered in the 169 meal kits, arrived with a surface temperature above 40 degrees, which makes them unsafe for human consumption. The food surface temperatures ranged from minus 23 degrees to 75 degrees. Microbial testing of these products revealed very high microbial loads, especially for perishable foods that arrived with surface temperatures of 60 degrees or higher.
Increasing Food Delivery Trends
Home food delivery is a trend that shows no sign of abating. Forbes Magazine recently wrote about a recent study, “Is the Kitchen Dead?” by UBS Bank. According to Forbes, UBS forecasts that food delivery sales could rise an annual average of more than 20% to $365 billion worldwide by 2030, from the current $35 billion worldwide.
Some of the biggest food chains around the globe have struck deals with delivery services, including Baskin-Robbins, McDonalds, Wendy’s, Jack in the Box, Cheesecake Factory, Red Robin, Outback Steakhouse, Buffalo Wild Wings, and many others. Grocery delivery services are now standard offering from most major grocers, as well as Walmart and Amazon, and now include robotic delivery services of perishable foods.
Of course, the trend is not unique to the United States. Food delivery services are experiencing explosive growth in Europe and Asia, as well. Recent news reports reveal that two of the biggest home delivery companies in Europe, Just Eat and Takeaway.com, are negotiating a merger with a potential value of $10 billion. The firms are reportedly merging in order to help them to better compete with industry juggernauts like Uber Eats and Amazon’s Deliveroo.
For most, the biggest issue with food delivery is palatability. While soggy, melting, and overcooked foods are unpleasant, quality, safety, and contamination are genuine problems for many of these foods, particularly perishable foods, which consumers should not overlook.
Opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of bioMérieux, Inc.