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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