Food Safety Challenges in the Modern Food Delivery World by Donald Schaffner

The reason why I chose (as a high school senior) to major in food science almost 40 years ago can be summed up in one short sentence: “people have to eat, so there will always be jobs”. What I could not have possibly imagined 40 years ago would be all the different ways that people currently get their food today.

It is a pleasure to welcome Don Schaffner as a guest blogger. Unlike other collaborations that have been involved in this site’s collaboration with Don’t Eat the Pseudoscience, Don is not a young food scientist. He was working on his MS in Food Science at the University of Georgia Experiment Station located in Experiment, Georgia, when I was pursuing tenure as a green Assistant Professor at the same location. He received his degree, and I was awarded tenure. Since then Don has gone on to develop a strong extension and research program at Rutgers University in food safety. I have asked him to address some of the safety concerns of food delivery in the 21st Century.   

This particular story has as its beginning a gift. It was a gift given to a colleague of mine at Rutgers University, Dr. Bill Hallman.  Bill and I both started on the faculty at Rutgers University in what is now the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences about 30 years ago. Bill is in the department of Human Ecology, and he is trained as a psychologist, but we both have a shared interest in food safety. Bill is very interested in how people think about food safety and make food safety decisions. The gift he received was food. It was sent to him through the mail as a gift for giving a talk. Unfortunately, the gift arrived when Bill was not in his office, and it didn’t have any indication on the outside that there was temperature sensitive perishable food on the inside. While his lovely gift did go to waste, it did spark in him an idea for a research project. He reached out to me and our mutual colleague, Dr Sandy Godwin at Tennessee State University, and we worked together to submit a grant proposal to USDA which was successfully funded.

The basic idea of the grant proposal was to collect information about the multitude food companies selling foods over the Internet, and being shipped by common carrier (US Postal Service, UPS, FedEx etc.) We were all very interested and concerned about the explosion of entrepreneurial activity that was possibly exposing customers of these businesses to food safety risks. We proceeded to order hundreds of shipments meat poultry and seafood which went to locations in Tennessee and New Jersey. Once the packages arrived, we collected information on food temperatures, packaging materials, as well as microbiological data on themselves. We also investigated what the company websites said about food safety, and how customers were informed about the potential microbiological risks associated their orders.

US postal truck delivering the mail
How safe will the ingredients of tonight’s meal be by the time I get home? https://unsplash.com/photos/ObweQkF5w30

Some of our findings have been published. What we found was startling. Some of the companies did a very good job using sturdy well insulated packages, with comprehensive food safety handling instructions, while other companies were exactly opposite. We received foods which had a variety of arrival temperatures, and that were packed in almost as many different ways as there were packages. Our microbiological testing revealed (somewhat surprisingly), that the total number of bacteria present on the food after arrival was as diverse as the temperatures, but there was very little correlation between arrival temperature and the total number of bacteria present. We also tested foods for the presence of pathogens like Salmonella, as well as indicator organisms like E. coli. Since we were testing meat and poultry products, we did find pathogens and indicators on some of the samples.

Since successfully completing the research project, we have given presentations on our findings, which have created quite a bit of interest in the safety community. In one particular case, Bill’s talk at the 2017 Food Safety Summit generated wide-ranging discussion. Part of the reason for the controversy was a misunderstanding of the foods that were the subject of the study. If you look at the article posted on the food safety news web site you will see that it currently includes a photograph of a traffic accident with packages from a truck spilled out onto the highway. That was not the original photograph posted with the article. The original photograph actually featured a popular meal kit delivery service. Our research was not on the safety of meal kits, but rather only meat poultry and seafood, but certainly the same food safety principles would apply.

The findings from our research inspired USDA FSIS to submit an issue for consideration at the 2016 Conference for Food Protection (CFP).  CFP brings together representatives from the food industry, government, academia, and consumer organizations to identify and address emerging problems of food safety and to formulate recommendations.  The Conference has no formal regulatory authority, but it does assist the US FDA in its mission to draft the model food code, which serves as a template for US state regulations for retail and food service facilities.

The issue submitted by FSIS resulted in the formation of a committee with two specific charges: (1) identify best practices and existing guidance documents related to shipment of perishable food items directly to a consumer and (2) develop a guidance document for food establishments that includes best practices for transportation of perishable food items directly to a consumer to include proper packaging; temperature control during shipping, receiving, and storage; return of compromised and abused products; and other food safety related topics.

The committee found very little in the way of existing documents focused on the topic, but they did identify a UK document entitled “Industry Guide to Good Hygiene Practice: MAIL ORDER” which was developed in support of European Community regulations in 2004 as well as UK regulations from 2006.  This document formed the background for the development of some US specific guidance, and the CFP committee completed its charge and delivered a document entitled “Guidance Document for Mail Order Food Companies”, which is currently available on the CFP website.  I had the pleasure of serving on that committee, to get a front row seat on the exciting discussions and debates which are always part of developing good guidance documents.

While the report was met with great enthusiasm, the food safety community also realized that in the intervening years, the food delivery business had continued to grow and evolve, and that various third-party delivery services that would either pick up food from a restaurant and bring it to a home, or would go to a supermarket and shop on behalf of a busy customer were rapidly gaining in popularity. While the bacteria don’t particularly care how or why they are being transported, the food safety community realized that the existing mail-order document needed to be enhanced and refined to also focus on third-party delivery services.

A new committee was established, and that committee was also given to specific charges: (1) identify current recommended practices and existing guidance documents that relate to shipment directly to a consumer of perishable food items and for the safe delivery of food by third party delivery services, and (2) update and revise the existing guidance document generally, and with a specific focus on third party delivery services. I currently have the pleasure and the privilege of chairing this committee. While the committee is not able to share its findings at this time, we expect that a successfully revised document will be finished in time for the 2020 CFP Biennial Meeting in Denver, starting on March 30, 2020.

Dr. Donald W. Schaffner is Extension Specialist in Food Science and Distinguished Professor at Rutgers University.  His research interests include handwashing, cross-contamination and quantitative microbial risk assessment. He has authored more than 170 peer-reviewed publications and educated thousands of food industry professionals around the world. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Food Technologists, the American Academy of Microbiology and International Association for Food Protection (IAFP). He has served as an Editor for Applied and Environmental Microbiology since 2005.  Dr. Schaffner was the president of IAFP in 2013-2014. In his spare time, he co-hosts the Food Safety Talk podcast.

Next week: The future of food waste and what we can do about it

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