Keeping It Cool: Food Safety Considerations for Meal Kit Delivery

Published: April 22, 2024
Food | Food Safety | Meal Kit

By Hannah Shuster-Hyman & Kayona Karunakumar, Science & Policy Exchange

As more Canadians begin relying on meal deliveries, it is critical to look beyond the supposed benefits of these services and consider the potential challenges. One of the primary concerns about food is safety.

Ahh, food. The very word conjures up fond memories and special moments. Despite the joy and community many of us find in food, it can be challenging for individuals to find the time and energy to regularly prepare meals at home. The convenience of ordering in, dining out, or consuming frozen meals often wins out. Enter meal delivery kits: the solution for easy, healthy, and fresh meals. Since the development of the first meal kit company in Sweden, the global meal kit market has grown exponentially. In the U.S. alone, there are over 150 companies offering meal kit delivery services. The Canadian meal kit market increased in value from five million dollars in 2010 to over 1.5 billion dollars in 2020. Undoubtedly, the increasing availability of these services is changing the way Canadians eat.

What is the current state of the Canadian meal kit market?
Meal kits surged in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic as people spent more time at home with limited opportunities to eat out. Many also relied on meal delivery options during quarantine. Users praise the convenience of delivery, the decrease in food waste, portion control, and wide variety of options to choose from. The market value as of 2022 sits at just over a billion dollars and is expected to increase, despite challenges facing the post-pandemic Canadian economy such as high levels of inflation and rising costs of living. As more Canadians begin relying on meal deliveries, it is critical to look beyond the supposed benefits of these services and consider the potential challenges. One of the primary concerns about food is safety.

How is food safety defined and regulated in Canada?
Food safety refers to the practices of handling, preparing, and storing food to limit the risk of foodborne illnesses. The improper management of food poses a serious health concern, with over 4 million Canadians contracting food-related illnesses every year. Thus, food safety in Canada is a major component of public health. Health Canada oversees food safety and nutritional guidelines for all food products sold and purchased across the country. The Canadian Food Inspections Agency enforces the regulations under the Food and Drugs Act, overseeing regulations on the promotion, labelling and packaging of food items. In instances where food-borne illnesses arise, the Public Health Agency of Canada investigates outbreaks, and advises Canadians about potentially contaminated food products.

Temperature is essential for defining food safety. Temperature is a critical factor influencing bacterial growth and the potential of generating food-borne illnesses. As a result, maintaining food at the appropriate temperature is a central principle of food safety. Bacteria grow readily in the “danger zone” between 4–60°C (40–140°F), which has become the defining guideline for safe food practices. The journey of a meal kit from its packaging, transport, and preparation can be substantial. Therefore, ensuring proper temperature throughout the journey is paramount.

(Source of Figure: Figure prepared by Eva Maria Hanson, for FoodDocs)

On the issue of food temperature, how do meal kits measure up?
Despite the assurances of meal kit companies that packaging practices ensure food is maintained at appropriate temperatures, recent studies have revealed otherwise. Researchers from Toronto Metropolitan University investigated the temperatures of high-risk food products (raw meat, fish, poultry) in meal kits delivered from eight subscription services available in Toronto, ON. At initial delivery, 12% of investigated products had an average temperature over 4°C. By 8 hours after delivery, the length of an average ‘9–5’ work day, 76% of the boxes measured above 4ºC. Similar results were found in a study at North Carolina State University, where temperature was evaluated for 72 different meal kits or perishable food deliveries across 12 companies. Over half of the deliveries evaluated contained at least one product above 4°C, including some high-risk products such as meat or poultry. These findings highlight a significant foodborne illness concern for the millions of customers using meal kit delivery services.

When food is unsafe, who is responsible?
Despite the existing regulatory standards for food safety, there is minimal oversight of the quality of meal kit food by regulatory bodies and the companies themselves. Responsibility for the safety of food largely falls on the shoulders of customers. In reviewing the terms and conditions of several meal kit services, a majority of companies explicitly state that the responsibility for any health risks associated with the food, transfer to the consumer immediately upon delivery.

But how do customers know what to do? Only 1 of 8 companies investigated recommended checking the temperature of food on delivery and less than half explicitly stated the recommended temperature (<4°C). No company disclosed information via their website about the risk of pathogen growth for food not kept at the recommended temperature.

Without explicit instruction to check the temperature of delivered products and a lack of accessible information about food safety guidelines, the average consumer may be unaware of the potential risks associated with their food.

As meal kit use rises, how can we make sure food stays safe?
There is little doubt that the use of meal kits will continue to grow, so the need to consider food safety is increasingly critical. Many strategies can be implemented to improve the safety of meal kits. First, including temperature labels within meal kit packages that permanently change colour when temperatures are in an unsafe range would indicate to consumers that products are no longer safe for consumption. Second, requiring the use of refrigerated vehicles to deliver food products would greatly improve the ability to ensure food is maintained at a safe temperature throughout transport. Finally, improved education is urgently needed. Companies should provide accessible information to their customers on the temperature “danger zone”, the importance of measuring food temperature, and the risk of food falling outside that range. These changes will help protect consumers from unsafe food while maintaining the convenience and accessibility of meal kit delivery services.