Marketed as a healthy, convenient and sustainable option for home-cooked meals, the popularity of meal kit delivery services has steadily grown over the last few years. And as more people turned to food deliveries during the COVID-19 pandemic, the prevalence of these services offering easy-to-follow, curated recipes and pre-portioned ingredients delivered straight to homes has only increased.
According to a Grand View Research, Inc report, the global meal kit delivery services market is predicted to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 13.27 percent and reach nearly $20 billion by 2027. The growing demand for these services has brought important food safety questions for meal kit businesses:
- Are they ensuring that proper time and temperature controls are being followed?
- How is cross-contamination between raw and ready-to-eat foods, along with allergens, being prevented?
- Are packages properly labelled with ingredient information?
- How can customers be empowered to spot food safety issues when their meal kit deliveries arrive and during the storage and preparation process?
Everyone in a meal kit business, from owners and managers to those who produce, sell and transport these foods, all share the responsibility of minimizing food safety risks and ensuring their customers are provided with the correct information to safety store and prepare their food.
While more research and discussion about industry standards for food safety still needs to be done, here are best practices that these food businesses can implement now to help ensure the safety of meal kit deliveries.
Make a Food Safety Plan
In Canada, most food businesses are required by law to have a Food Safety Plan as part of their Food Safety Program. This plan must be based on the 7 Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), which is a system used to determine potential food safety risks and create control points in each step of the production process to help minimize the risk of food-borne illness outbreaks.
For meal kit delivery businesses, a Food Safety Plan should include processes for:
- sourcing ingredients from reputable suppliers
- creating preventive measures for cross-contamination during processing
- implementing temperature control processes for deliveries
- ensuring proper labelling is included for all packages
- including food safety education for the customer
Source your ingredients from reliable suppliers
Meal kit businesses must verify that their ingredients are sourced from reputable suppliers that follow proper food safety protocols. This is important for every ingredient included in the meal kit, and especially integral for ingredients meant to be consumed without cooking such as fruits and vegetables.
Employees must also always check food deliveries and reject them if food safety standards aren’t met.
Create processes to prevent cross-contamination
Typically, meal kits provide both ingredients that must be cooked and items that are meant to be eaten raw. Meal kits can also include high-risk foods that are more likely to harbour harmful bacteria, such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs and dairy. It’s integral that businesses implement processes to avoid cross-contamination to help prevent food-borne illness outbreaks.
During processing and assembly, Food Handlers should:
- use separate chopping boards, utensils and equipment for raw meats and ready-to-eat foods
- thoroughly clean and sanitize any surfaces that have touched raw meat
- use proper disinfection techniques
- always separate meats and ready-to-eat foods, taking extra precautions to never put them on the same shelves or contaminated surfaces
- practice proper hygiene habits such as washing hands, especially after cooking or handling raw meats
To minimize cross-contamination risks in meal kit packaging, best practices include:
- packing ingredients separately from each other
- using additional packaging within the meal kit to isolate high-risk foods (such as raw meats) from foods meant to be eaten raw to help ensure no leakage contaminates the ready-to-eat foods
- disinfecting the exterior packaging before assembling the meal kit
Prioritize temperature control for deliveries
One of the biggest food safety concerns with meal kit deliveries is the amount of time it takes to get from the manufacturing facility to the hands of the customer. Meal kits can spend hours to days in transit without proper refrigeration, creating the perfect environment for harmful bacteria to grow. The time of the year and location of the delivery are also factors in how fast ingredients could spoil.
That’s why it’s integral for businesses to prioritize proper temperature control protocols for deliveries. Additionally, customers should be given information to help understand the importance of checking for spoiled food and immediately storing items away in the refrigerator once they receive their meal kit. Below are a few examples of protocols and safety tools that a meal kit delivery business can implement.
- Label meal kit packages as perishable so that customers know to check and properly store away perishable foods immediately after receiving their delivery.
- Use insulated thermal liners and refrigerants to help keep ingredients at the correct temperature for longer.
- Separate foods that need to be kept cold within their own cold zone in the packaging from food items that could spoil at low temperatures.
- Use vacuum-sealed or modified-atmosphere packaging to help limit the growth of harmful bacteria for some ingredients and potentially increase their shelf life.
- Alert customers of food safety risks using technology such as time-temperature indicators (TTIs) on the packaging. TTIs will irreversibly change to a specific colour when exposed to unsafe temperatures. Customers should be made aware that once this colour appears, the product is not safe to consume.
Remember to educate your customers on food safety
Just because meal kits are safely delivered to customers, doesn’t mean food safety risks are now gone! Proper labelling and clear instructions should be included in meal kits to educate customers on food safety and minimize the risk of them contracting food-borne illnesses:
- Ensure all meals and recipes clearly list all ingredients and allergens.
- Clearly label each ingredient in the meal kit.
- Include correct washing procedures, defrosting methods and cooking times in recipes and instructions.
- Make sure general food safety instructions like proper hand washing, preventive cross-contamination methods and time and temperature control directions are included.
- Communicate how long it is safe to keep ingredients in the refrigerator before it spoils, along with proper storage practices for leftovers and reheating instructions.
- Add a use-by date.
While meal kits are a convenient option for those looking for easy and time-saving recipes, they also come with their own set of food safety challenges. As the global industry continues to investigate and discuss how to address the food safety challenges associated with meal kits, businesses can implement these best practices now as a great starting point to help limit food safety risks.
The Canadian Institute of Food Safety’s (CIFS) Guide to Building a Food Safety Plan provides food businesses with in-depth advice for creating a comprehensive and compliant Food Safety Plan. Help protect your customers from food-borne illness outbreaks and ultimately protect your brand reputation with the help of CIFS!