The summer 2022 Daily Harvest recall as well as the viral TikTok pink sauce debacle have called into question food safety regulations regarding business to consumer (B2C) e-commerce food companies.
Here’s a quick summary of the recall from the popular meal-delivery service and the not so great response it gave:
I expressed some of the food safety concerns here.
So, what is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doing about it, and what should you know in the meantime to reduce your risk of foodborne illness when ordering food online?
The FDA New Era of Smarter Food Safety Summit on E-Commerce: Ensuring the Safety of Foods Ordered Online and Delivered Directly to Consumers took place virtually in October 2021.
“Because of the increasing number of consumers ordering their foods online, convening this summit is a goal set in FDA’s New Era of Smarter Food Safety blueprint. The number of consumers ordering food online has been steadily increasing over the years, but it has skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to reports of consumer buying patterns. The blueprint goal is to convene a summit to identify courses of action to address potential food safety vulnerabilities, including those that may arise in the ‘last mile’ of delivery,” the agency said.
The FDA intends to use the learnings from the public meeting to help determine what actions, if any, may be needed to keep consumers safe.
There was a focus on B2C e-commerce models including:
- Produce and meal kit subscription services.
- Ghost kitchens — facilities that do not have a storefront or dining area and are used only to prepare food for restaurants, other delivery, or catering businesses. Multiple businesses may operate out of a single location.
- Dark stores — fulfilment centers that fulfil delivery and pickup orders without in-store retail services.
Here are some of the food safety concerns associated with these B2C e-commerce models that were discussed during the summit:
- Temperature control: Both industry and government raised concerns about mail delivery services that ship foods requiring cold storage during transport and upon delivery and the lack of uniform food safety policies to ensure perishable foods are being delivered to and received by the consumer at safe temperatures. Food that is left outside after being delivered is especially concerning.
- Traceability: Repackaged ingredients in meal kits may not have identifying information like lot codes. This can be problematic in the event of a recall not only in identifying the correct product to recall, but in tracing ingredients back to suppliers as well.
- Cross-contamination: Meal kits containing repackaged ingredients present risks of cross-contamination. There is little visibility regarding whether adequate controls are in place.
Here are some of the regulatory gaps associated with these B2C e-commerce models that were discussed during the summit:
- Food code violation history: It can be difficult for regulators to identify a single facility’s Food Code violation history when ghost kitchens may operate under one or more names and on several different online platforms.
- FSMA exemption: Many B2C e-commerce companies operate as retail food establishments, which means that they may be exempt from the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Preventive Controls Rule. There was a discussion as to whether these B2C e-commerce companies should be subject to the same regulations as food manufacturing facilities.
- Social media food sales: Small B2C e-commerce food businesses may be unaware of the food safety regulations that apply to them. State governments often rely on consumer complaints and reporting to identify companies that are not following the proper regulations.
- Mandatory labeling availability: There is no uniform practice when it comes to providing nutrition and allergen information for food products online. They identified a need for consumers, including non-English speakers and visually-impaired consumers, to be able to access this information, which can vary greatly in the way it’s presented on different websites.
- Third party delivery services: The business structure of delivery services makes it difficult to enforce training programs and food safety measures.
In light of these food safety risks when it comes to B2C e-commerce companies, what can you do as the consumer to reduce your risk of foodborne illness?
- Research companies before ordering from them.
- Do they indicate proper handling and cooking instructions for their products?
- Do they properly label allergens as well as indicate possible cross-contamination?
- Do they label repackaged ingredients with lot numbers in case of a recall?
- Can they verify that perishable foods stay at a safe temperature during transit up until being received by the consumer?
- What is their refund policy for perishable foods that may arrive at unsafe temperatures?
- Bring the box inside ASAP
- Make sure the box is going to be delivered when someone is home so that it can be brought inside promptly.
- Indicate that the box be left in a cool and shaded location if someone can’t be home upon delivery.
- If you know somebody won’t be home upon delivery, avoid delivery during really hot days.
- Inspect the box and contents
- Inspect the box and individual food packages for damage and/or tampering.
- Make sure perishables are at a safe temperature (less than 41 degrees F)
- Get perishables into cold storage ASAP
- Read packages to see which products need to be refrigerated or frozen.
- Practice safe food handling
Overall, just use your best judgement. If someone is selling a pink hued ranch sauce via TikTok and there seems to be no information online regarding if they’re following appropriate food safety measures or any transparency about where it’s made or how the product is shipped safely to the consumer, your best bet is probably to avoid these types of operations.
As for the FDA’s summit, we’ll wait and see what comes of it, but in the meantime try to be as informed and proactive as possible when in comes to ordering food online in order to reduce you and your family’s risk of foodborne illness.
Food Science Babe is the pseudonym of an agvocate and writer who focuses specifically on the science behind our food. She has a degree in chemical engineering and has worked in the food industry for more than decade, both in the conventional and in the natural/organic sectors.