By Nick Upton

Every few weeks during my summers growing up in Rochester, Minnesota, a beat-up red truck would idle down the street. The driver was looking for people out enjoying the weather. He would nod or wave and crunch onto the gravel driveway with a big smile.

“You look like you could use some steak!” he once said to my dad, motioning him over to a huge plastic cooler in the bed of the truck filled with steaks, ground hamburger, ribs—all manner of cellophane-wrapped meat. My dad, who knew everybody, would chat about the weather, football or the news and eye the meat. But he never bought anything.

I once asked him why we never got any truck meat, and my dad’s lesson didn’t touch on USDA methods or food-safe temperatures: it was simple, “You don’t buy steak out of a pickup truck.”

I wouldn’t say it was a formative lesson; it actually never came to mind until the meal kit industry popped up—but instead of a red pickup, it was a FedEx truck and I bought it online. So it’s OK, right?

According to professor Bill Hallman, chair of the Department of Human Ecology at Rutgers, the truck meat may have been safer.

“If our data is representative—and we think it is—there is potentially a significant problem,” said Hallman.

Hallman’s findings came via in a wide-sweeping study of protein delivered to the home in a partnership with Tennessee State University. It included an elaborate protocol of unpacking, reading temperatures of the protein, box and coolant and examinations of air space and dunnage (the packing materials that reduce airspace).

“What we found after ordering 169 shipments, more than 680 individual products—almost half of them—were above 41 degrees,” said Hallman. “Shocked, I was completely shocked.”

That 41-degree mark is important, that’s just inside the “Danger Zone” according to the USDA and the point where all sorts of nasty things happen. If any protein sits between 40 degrees and 140 degrees, it means a larger “pathogenic load” (a term Hallman used with little regard to my leftover Blue Apron lunch).

Hallman, who explores the consumer perceptions of risk throughout this and other studies, said consumers have no concept of the danger they’re shipping to their doors. As a part of the study, Hallman and the research team surveyed more than 1,000 consumers of mail-order meat.

“More than nine in 10 said this was perfectly safe. It was not even a question that it was unsafe,” said Hallman.

Of those, “maybe four” said they used a thermometer to check the temperature of their protein. He said the perception that the high cost of such products makes consumers think they couldn’t be unsafe. And even when they are sickened, they rarely attribute it to the correct food item.

“I understand a bit about consumer behaviors, you expect that if you order a couple hundred dollars of meat from these companies or get a gift where it’s clear that a lot of money has been spent, you expect that they kind of know what they’re doing. The reality is not that, the reality is there is a lot of variability in the delivery of these products,” said Hallman.

That’s a key point, many companies do a really fantastic job. Some 53% of mail-order companies arrived at Rutgers and the surrounding area in good shape during the study. But even good companies have an off shipment, or a shipping delay or some brutally hot weather. Keeping their consumers safe also means empowering them to know when something is wrong, something Hallman said gave him more pause than consumer perceptions around safety.

“What’s even more distressing to me is that when we looked at the websites of these companies, most of them did not have food safety information readily available. And when they did, it did was wrong or misleading or dangerously wrong or misleading,” said Hallman.

He said one company was especially egregious. On its website, the company stated that as long as the product is cool to the touch, it’s OK to eat. Of course since touch is a sensation based on ambient temperature, a 70-degree steak would feel cool in an 80-degree room but could be teaming with pathogens.

“So that’s a real problem. Telling consumers bad advice is really, really problematic. And if someone got sick, and the company was essentially giving that advice, it would seem to me to open them to all kinds of liability issues,” said Hallman.

Bill Marler, who goes by the moniker “The Food Safety Lawyer,” agreed.

“I think the consumer needs to be as aware as they are when they are buying products themselves at a grocery store. It has the same risk, just because it comes in a nice little box doesn’t mean that it’s risk free,” said Marler. “In many respects, I think the consumer needs to be as aware as they would purchasing from grocery stores.”

Even Blue Apron, the only public entity in this industry and the leader of the pack, just added food-safety guidance to its website in August, a full month after it went public.

The study looked at the growing mail-order meat industry, not specifically meal kits. But Hallman said meal-kit companies add another layer of complexity where things can get more dangerous.

“So there are additional concerns bout cross contamination, additional concerns about trace back—if you’ve got two tablespoons of chopped chive, where did that come from?” pondered Hallman.

Marler said those uncooked garnishes like cilantro and sprouts, common culprits in food safety lawsuits, need to be washed no matter where they came from. So meal-kit companies need to communicate food safety to both cover their collective butts, but also to guard against a major outbreak damaging the entire mail-order food segment.

Despite a lot of distressing anecdotes and some worrisome statistics, Hallman said shipping meat was perfectly safe if done right. The first thing that must be done is give good information online so consumers can be aware when something is off, and provide a way to contact the company with such concerns—something severely lacking across the industry.

Then these companies need to take responsibility for correct packaging.

“That means calculating the space in their package, finding the right coolant and where to place those coolants. Hot air rises, so putting a gel pack on the bottom of the box and throwing in your product, doesn’t necessarily work all that well,” said Hallman. “Even if you do that, the package may get turned upside down. So it’s putting the proper amounts of coolant in and putting them in the proper places.”

But until the whole industry gets it together, it’s a scary purchase for consumers and a scarier one for companies operating in the sector. One bad outbreak at any of the company’s suppliers might not just hurt the company, but ruin the perception of an entire industry before it really takes off.

“There are a number of issues, and given the popularity of these products, it’s only a matter of time before someone gets sick,” said Hallman. “And that will create a problem for the entire sector.”

The first phase of Hallman’s research that examined food safety guidelines and communication on websites was published in Food Protection Trends (PDF), the examination of home-delivered protein is currently under peer review and is slated for publication soon.