The emergence of at-home cooking boxes – how safe really are they?

Meal kits and takeaway services have skyrocketed in popularity, with an astonishing 62.5% increase for the brand search term ‘Hello Fresh’ since July last year as reported by Google Trends.

But with consumer concerns for safety still rife amidst the pandemic, food safety specialists at Navitas Safety say it’s important these companies stay hot on health with the rise of home-ordering.

Last year, when lockdown struck and the nation was made housebound, many of us turned to meal-prep food boxes, as well as getting regular deliveries and takeaways from both local and national food suppliers. Sales of which, were 317% more in February 2021, than in the same month of 2020.

Since spending so long indoors and getting accustomed to getting their weekly food shop delivered, consumers no longer want to spend their precious time queuing and browsing in often over-crowded supermarkets, which is one of the reasons that at-home cooking boxes are so popular.

So much so, that the global meal-kit market was worth just $8.4 US billion but is now expected to reach $20.1 billion by 2027, growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 13.27%.

Recognised for delivering pre-packed fresh ingredients, recipe cards and detailed cooking instructions, this new way of eating seems to be the ideal solution for homeowners seeking quick, easy, and healthy meals, without having to leave the comfort of their homes.

HelloFresh in particular saw a rather significant jump in its active users globally within the first three months of 2021, up 74.2% from the previous year.

Similarly, Gousto is set to take on more than 1,000 new employees as the food delivery firm grew its total sales by 129% in 2020, proving just how much of an impact such services have had on the nation.

For the most part, subscription-based models such as these, are incredibly compliant with food health and safety standards. However, there are times when things just slip through the net.

Digital food safety expert and CEO of Navitas Safety, Ben Gardner, explains that convenience shouldn’t trump hygiene and food safety standards.

“The demand for meal kits has raised concerns about the correct storage facilities for door drop-offs. There have already been cases around the world whereby inaccurate storage temperatures have affected the safety of fish causing risk of contamination from toxins like histamine.

“With sustainability also now a major consideration for these companies, a lot of them have moved to containing ingredients in little more than an ice-packed cardboard box for hours on end.

“Ultimately, it is then down to the consumer to then ensure the foods are stored correctly thereafter, but it’s important that businesses keep the customer aware of storage information both pre and post order and that there are instructions set to stop food going off, preventing what would be an unfortunate bout of food poisoning.”

Not only can food be perishable if stored at the incorrect temperature but leaving foods such as meat and poultry out at room temperature for too long could also lead to dangerous levels of bacteria growth.

“Most bacteria will grow between 8°C and 60°C, this is what we refer to as the danger zone. This could ultimately lead to bad bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus (Staph) and Salmonella Enteritidis (Salmonella) to grow, causing a foodborne illness for the consumer,” said Ben.

Now, even the likes of Amazon are getting involved with Amazon Fresh and Amazon Go. However, the consideration from businesses must begin long before it reaches the customer.

From first sourcing the ingredients to them arriving at a customer’s door, Ben questions whether they are kept at a safe and appropriate temperature during transit.

He said, “Keeping foods at the right temperature is absolutely paramount to consumer safety and should be a priority for businesses. For those that struggle with ensuring food is stored correctly, or those that want to take that extra precautionary measure, they should utilise digital food safety tools such as Smart Temperature Pods. These ensure that temperatures are monitored 24/7 when placed in cold storages.”

What’s more, according to a study set out by Rutgers University, it was reported that more than 47 per cent of food items from meal kit packages arrived with surface temperatures above 40 degrees, a temperature classed as a ‘danger zone’ by the USDA and one of which bacteria grows rapidly in.

With that in mind, it comes as no surprise that consumers have complained about food not being fresh upon delivery, as well as receiving foods that had resulted in illness, proving the vitality of keeping food stored at ideal temperatures.

Whilst in the minority, Ben explains that this is something businesses and consumers must be wary of.

He said, “When food is stored incorrectly, not only are consumers put at risk of food poisoning, but the industry will see an increase in food wastage, too.

“If brands utilise a digital food safety strategy and its solutions, they will be eliminating the risks and potential of both.”

When it comes to food delivery services, there is a lot to consider, for both the business, and the consumer; from delivery and storage to cross-contamination and of course, the cooking itself.

Allergens are incredibly important, and in order to be compliant with the impending Natasha’s Law, businesses must ensure that all meals and recipes clearly list all allergens and ingredients.

He said, “Businesses must work hard to ensure all pre-packed goods are listed with the correct allergen information, in order to prevent allergic reactions and potentially, severe side effects. Consumers must also play their part and ensure that they read all allergen information before consumption.”

“Not only that, but consumers must follow cooking instructions thoroughly, for instance the correct cooking times, washing foods and defrosting methods, as well as check the use-by date prior to cooking.”

Ben added: “Whilst reports may highlight concerns surrounding these services, as long as detailed and thorough precautions are taken, and as long as consumers responsibly store the delivered ingredients, they should continue to enjoy convenient and fuss-free meal kits.”

Navitas Safety is a key safety partner within the food and hospitality industries. Working with restaurants, as well as suppliers, delivery and takeaway businesses, the digital food safety specialists provide its clients with audits, consultations, and digital food safety strategies.

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