According to a recent university study, the majority of meal kits delivered to consumers contain one or more perishable food items that have been exposed to temperatures above the 40-degree Fahrenheit safety zone that can contribute to the growth of potentially harmful bacteria. The report indicates the meal kit industry needs to more accurately track and measure temperatures throughout the product journey to better control food safety and build confidence in the rapidly growing direct-to-consumer food delivery industry. 

Researchers at North Carolina State University evaluated 72 deliveries of identical menu items from 12 leading companies that deliver meal kits, ready-to-eat meals or perishable foods via a delivery service such as FedEx. Key findings of the study include:

  • More than 76% of the 72 boxes delivered included at least one product above the 40°F food safety zone.
  • Nearly 42% of the companies had all deliveries above 40°F.
  • Fifty percent of the companies shipped boxes with at least one meat or poultry product above 40°F. Nearly 17% of those companies had all deliveries over 40°F .
  • More than 58% of the 12 companies shipped boxes with at least one fruit or vegetable product above 40°F. Of those companies, more than 41% had all packages arrive over 40°

“Meal kit companies and online grocers experienced unprecedented growth in 2020.  And while the popularity of home delivered foods and meal kits is still increasing, few details are known about the journey of these packaged foods from when they leave the vendor to when the foods are delivered and prepared in consumer homes,” says Joseph Battoe, CEO of Chicago-based Varcode. “Gaining a better understanding of the journey of these packaged foods would identify opportunities for providing safer, more wholesome foods to consumers and higher customer satisfaction.”

Varcode provides technology that monitors meal kits and other temperature sensitive products throughout the cold chain to final delivery. Varcode technology delivers data to pinpoint temperature related challenges linked to packaging engineering, global and seasonal climate variations, shipping methods and other critical factors.

Battoe added that, beyond temperatures at the time of delivery, meal kit companies also need to determine how long a perishable food item was at a specific temperature. 

“If a chicken cutlet, for example, registered at 50°F when delivered, we need to know how long it was above the recommended 40-degree safe zone,” says Battoe. “Knowing whether it was for 10 minutes or more than four hours is important for determining food safety. At present, there is no oversight or regulations, so consumers are left to trust the design, packaging and shipping policies of the vendor and delivery companies, and, given the high temperatures noted in this project, it appears there is room for improvement. Many direct-to-consumer food companies are just as in the dark, as many have no control or information once the boxes leave their facilities. Current solutions do not deliver information back to the companies at any reasonably scalable cost to create a continuous improvement process. Box-by-box monitoring of temperature abuse would provide more accurate information related to food safety and increase consumer confidence in the direct-to-consumer delivery process of food items.”

The study also confirmed that transit times are a major factor in product safety. Deliveries with a total travel time of 20 hours or less had the lowest average box temperatures, while those with transit times of 40 hours or more had the highest average box temperatures.  

Additionally, researchers found the types and quantities of packaging coolants used significantly impact perishable food safety. Approximately 17% of deliveries using dry ice had at least one item above 40°F. Of deliveries shipped using gel packs, 93% had at least one item above 40°F.  All the deliveries containing two kilograms or less of gel packets had at least one item above 40°, and 90% of deliveries containing six kilograms or more of gel packets had at least one item above 40°F

“Despite phenomenal industry growth, many direct-to-consumer food delivery companies are potentially facing troubling levels of customer churn — sometimes, more than 50% — and multiple studies report that consumers cite food safety as their primary reason for choosing or switching vendors,” says Battoe. “If they have accurate digitalized monitoring, food delivery companies can utilize this data to enhance packaging efficacy and have more successful deliveries which would build customer confidence, loyalty and directly address the industry-wide challenge of customer retention while increasing their sustainability.” 

Battoe added meal kit companies can use temperature monitoring data to also make operational changes that reduce product waste, decrease the need for re-shipping and reduce packaging costs, thereby increasing revenues.

North Carolina State University is submitting and engaging in a peer review process to formally publish all the findings, which is estimated to take until early Q3.