Perish the thought

    Posted by Carissa Smith on August 18,2017

    In ‘Time bombs: Carriers, shippers do little to protect perishables’, an article in the Food Safety News website (, author Coral Beach reports that “home delivery of perishable foods is a mega disaster in the making if businesses don’t step up and do the right thing.”

    In presentations during the International Association for Food Protection annual meeting, a major topic was keeping food cold during the symposium ‘Perishable Foods Delivered to Homes via Common Carriers: Safe or Sorry’. Ms. Beach reports that part of the problem is packaging, part is transportation, and part is perception. While solutions are within reach, there are “virtually no regulations covering virtual food sales, and consumers are at the mercy of profiteers.”

    Frank Yiannas, Walmart’s vice president for food safety explained, “Don’t let a new business model outpace standards, controls and prevention. As long as foodborne illness exists any place in the world it can exist every place.” Yiannas predicted that 20% of food will be sold online by 2025, adding that 70% of consumers will purchase at least some of their food through the Internet by then. He urged businesses offering home delivery of perishable foods to demand packaging innovations that include time and temperature monitoring and tamper-evident seals to protect their customers.

    In a separate presentation, William Hallman, a Rutgers University professor and chairman of the school’s Department of Human Ecology, said, “Industry should be proactive and pack (home-delivered foods) for the worst case scenario, not the best case scenario, which is what they are doing now.”

    Along with researchers from Tennessee State University, Hallman conducted a project funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to examine food safety issues related to home-delivered proteins, such as meat, fish and poultry. At the start of their research, they identified about 500 websites offering raw meat, fish and poultry for home delivery. By the end of the project, 73 of those operations were gone. In their place new online businesses had popped up as fast as the others had disappeared. A scary thought was that the parcels being sent by these businesses were not treated any differently that other products being delivered by FedEx and others.

    The researchers interviewed more than 1,000 consumers and placed 160 orders of raw meat and fish. Half were sent to Rutgers and half were sent to Hallman’s counterparts at Tennessee State. The scientists documented the condition of the parcels upon receipt and took temperature readings of each product. About half of the food orders (47%) arrived at temperatures above 40°F, the top limit of the safe temperature zone where E. coli, Salmonella and other pathogens appear. Some of the foods were measured at 75°F!

    Researchers discovered other problems:

    • According to the researchers, gel packs didn’t work well;
    • Containers used to ship perishable foods are often much larger than necessary and 63% didn’t have packing materials to fill the empty space, compromising temperature;
    • Only 37% of deliveries visibly informed that the packages contained perishable foods;
    • Only 25% percent had food safety information;
    • Some foods (mainly fish and fish products) didn't provide any labeling at all!

    The Rutgers research, originally presented at the Food Safety Summit '17, is also reported at:

    The federal government is trying to help, according to Melanie Abley of the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. She said that they have received complaints about meat juices leaking on to other foods, temperature abuses and cooking instructions that don’t reach the correct temperatures to kill pathogens.

    Online comments to Ms. Beach’s article certainly showed that this is a hot topic. One reader suggested that, over time, the largest retailer might be the only one to “afford all the temperature control devices and overnight shipping the new regulations will require.”

    One reader explained that some companies—smaller ones—who offer a food delivery service choose to operate their own distribution service to maintain control.

    Another reader with industry experience suggested that, “the issue right now is customers/consumers don't perceive the risk. There does need to be mechanisms in place to mitigate the risk.” The reader added, “Concerns about cold chain management have nothing to do with driving out competition and everything to do with keeping consumers safe. Micro labs have used overnight temperature controlled sample shipping for years.”

    No need to spoil dinner

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    Topics: Cold Chain, Food, Food Safety

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