Package problems: Food safety experts comment on mail-order perishables

Consumers can get just about anything online these days. Beekeepers can buy live bees online. Researchers can purchase real human skulls. With enough money, you can get your own private island via the World Wide Web.

It makes sense, in this age of online convenience, that more and more food companies, wholesalers and grocers are offering food products for sale via the Internet. Many even offer perishable goods, presenting food safety concerns when it comes to packaging and transportation.

At this year’s annual meeting for the International Association for Food Protection, a symposium was held entitled “Perishable Foods Delivered to Homes via Common Carriers: Safe or Sorry?”

Food Safety News reported that Walmart’s vice president for food safety, Frank Yiannas, urged businesses to seek packaging solutions that include time and temperature monitoring, as well as tamper-proof seals.

Food ordered online has been shown to be delivered under less-than-ideal circumstances. Rutgers University professor William Hallman and a team of researchers investigated home-delivery meal kits, and found that most goods they ordered online arrived with microbial loads “off the charts” due to temperature abuse during shipping.

“The 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,” said Hallman at the symposium.

Hallman and his team ordered more than 160 meal kits that included raw meat and fish. Nearly half of the orders arrived above 40°F, which is unsafe to consume, as pathogens multiply rapidly at such temperatures. Some items had temperatures as high as 60°F-70°F.

The researchers also found that gel cooling packs were generally insufficient to keep food cold in the parcel, that oftentimes not enough packing material was used, and that many packages didn’t have labels to identify dangerous dry ice or important product information.

According to Melanie Abley of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, there is work to be done in the mail-order food arena.

“We have gotten complaints about meat juices leaking onto other foods, temperature abuses and cooking instruction that don’t reach the correct temperatures to kill pathogens,” she said.

A packaging innovation

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is working with scientists from Florida’s Agricultural Research Service to create packaging that will protect food from pathogens like E. coli during transportation.

The new packaging would contain pouches full of chlorine dioxide, which can kill many pathogens. Too much of the gas can burn produce, but researchers are trying to develop a package with a semi-permeable membrane that would release the gas slowly. Grapefruit transported with the chlorine dioxide pouches was found to have 10 times fewer bacterial and fungal pathogens as fruit stored without the pouches.

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