Meal kit services have steadily grown in popularity over the last few years. Positioned as a healthy, convenient and sustainable option, consumers are turning to meal kit delivery services for curated recipes and pre-portioned ingredients brought straight to their doors.
These services’ prevalence grew even more as people increasingly turned to online options for food during the COVID-19 pandemic. It looks safe to say that the meal kit food service model is here to stay, with the global market predicted to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 13.27 percent and reach nearly $20 billion by 2027, according to a report by Grand View Research, Inc.
With the growing demand for meal kit deliveries comes more questions about how companies providing these services are making sure the foods they provide are actually safe to eat:
- Are they ensuring 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?
Convenience shouldn’t take precedence over food safety best practices. Everyone involved in producing, selling and transporting these foods all share the responsibility of taking the proper steps to ensure items delivered are safe to consume and the end consumer is provided with information to safely store and prepare their food.
While more research on industry standards still needs to be done to ensure proper food safety measures are in place, there are processes these food businesses can implement now to help ensure the safety of meal kit deliveries.
Create a Food Safety Plan
In Australia, 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 minimise the risk of food-borne illness outbreaks.
A few critical areas that meal kit delivery businesses should focus on for their Food Safety Plan include:
- 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
Purchase ingredients from a reliable supplier
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.
Implement measures 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.
In the processing stage, Food Handlers must:
- use separate chopping boards, utensils and equipment for raw meats and ready-to-eat foods
- thoroughly clean and sanitise any surfaces that have touched raw meat
- use proper disinfection techniques
- always separate meats and ready-to-eat foods, taking extra precaution to never put them on the same shelves or contaminated surfaces
- practise proper hygiene habits such as washing hands, especially after handling raw meats or cooking
Packaging requirements to minimise cross-contamination risks 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
Follow temperature control protocols during delivery
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. The package can spend hours to days without refrigeration, creating the perfect environment for harmful bacteria to grow. The season and geographic area of the delivery can also affect how fast ingredients could spoil while in transit.
That’s why it’s important for businesses to implement packaging protocols that will help food stay at the correct temperature for longer. Additionally, labels and other safety tools should be used to help the customer 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.
Educate customers with proper labelling and instructions
Just because meal kits are safely delivered to customers, doesn’t mean food safety risks are now gone! In fact, meal kit businesses should implement these labelling and instruction best practices to educate customers on food safety and minimise the risk of food-borne illness:
- 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 empower people to cook food at home with easy and curated recipes, they also come with their own set of food safety challenges. Meal kit businesses have the responsibility to minimise food safety risks and also ensure that proper labelling and instructions are provided so that customers know how to handle the food safely.
There are sure to be more technology and regulation updates as the global industry continues to discuss how to address food safety concerns associated with meal kit deliveries. These best practices are a great starting point for businesses to limit food safety risks. With the proper Food Safety Plan and Program in place, your business can protect your customers from food-borne illness outbreaks and ultimately protect your brand reputation as well.
Learn more about how to create a Food Safety Plan for your business and implement your Food Safety Program with the Australian Institute of Food Safety’s (AIFS) Guide to Building a Food Safety Program.
Operating a food business involves meeting various requirements to keep your customers safe. Here is an outline of the steps you need to take to get started.