Convenient meals, inconvenient pathogens?

Wouldn’t it be nice to never step foot in a grocery store again? No more navigating a cart bumper car-style down overwhelming aisles teeming with more products — and more decisions — than you can shake a stick at.

Trendy home-delivery meal kits attempt to provide a solution to grocery store haters. The idea is, you order a meal online and have all the ingredients shipped straight to your front door. Sounds great, right?

Well, a study presented by Rutgers University professor Bill Hallman at the 2017 Food Safety Summit says no, according to Food Safety News. Hallman and other researchers from Rutgers and Tennessee State University ordered 684 items from food kits (169 meal kits total) and took a close look at what they got.

The team found that the kits are likely to be left outside for eight or more hours before they can be refrigerated, mainly when they are delivered and left on doorsteps. Only 5% required a signature upon delivery. Most United States-based mail services do not take responsibility for the condition of perishable products, and food kit vendors disclaim responsibility for long delivery times.

According to Hallman, one vendor said, “Your bison meat may be thawed by the time it gets to you. Touch the meat and if it is cool to the touch, your order is in good condition.” Depending on how long the meat has been unrefrigerated, “cool to the touch” meat may not actually be safe to eat.

The team received some food items with surface temperatures of 60-70°F. Hallman said they had “microbial loads off the charts,” and nearly 47% of items arrived above 40°F — unsafe to consume. Items packed in dry ice more often remained cold, and those tucked in with cooling gel packs were less cool. However, Hallman said that pathogen microbial loads didn’t have a linear relationship with temperature in every case.

Researchers also found concerns in labeling. Beef, lamb and pork sometimes arrived in the same shipment without labels, and only 42% of home-delivery vendors included food safety information on their websites. Sometimes that information was inaccurate, Hallman said.

How long can meat be unrefrigerated and still safe to eat?

Meat and heat are only a good combo if temperatures are high enough to cook said meat.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety Inspection Service (USDA FSIS), raw meat should never be consumed if it’s been out of the refrigerator for over 2 hours — less than that if the air is over 90°F. In temperatures between 40-140°F, bacteria populations grow like crazy, doubling within 20-60 minutes.

You can store raw meat in the refrigerator for a little longer. The USDA FSIS recommends storing thawed meat, including poultry and seafood, no longer than a day or two. Foodsafety.gov says that raw roasts, steaks and chops can make it 3-5 days.

A few other meat safety tips:

  • Cooking meat to at least 165°F kills most pathogens.
  • No matter the temperature, cooking meat does not kill the toxins produced by pathogens, so you are still at risk for foodborne illnesses if you aren’t careful.
  • Even if your food doesn’t smell rotten, it may not be safe to eat. If your raw steak has been sitting out for 5 hours and smells alright, you still shouldn’t eat it.

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