Are Subscription Meal Kits Safe?

236%
growth in meal subscription kits last yearCNBC

Meal kits are increasing in popularity. Between 2015 and 2016, meal kits grew in popularity by over 236%. With over 100 companies creating meal subscription services, there are a wide variety of options on the market with choices ranging from menus to when it’s delivered, and how many people you are feeding. Some companies will even let you avoid certain ingredients or favor others.

As if that isn’t enough, there are also meal kit companies that cater to certain geographical areas: New England, Georgia, Northern California, and so on. You can get vegan meals, organic meals, or various other restricted-diet meals. In other words, you can pretty much get any kind of meal kit you could possibly want.

But how safe are these meal kit plans? If you have allergies, should you be concerned? What about bacteria growth while it is sitting on the doorstep? And are the ingredients themselves safe? I’ve taken a look three of the biggest companies making subscription meal kids and provided a summary of what you’ll find below.

Blue Apron

The best-funded and most popular of the available subscription meal services, Blue Apron is a massive operation that delivers more than 8 million kits per month. However, the company’s fast growth has also been a source of major problems: attempts to meet the increased demand led to a number of workplace safety violations at its facility in Richmond, California. The company claims that it now has a handle on things, but with its recent public stock offering, further growth could lead to similar problems in the future.

As for the meal kits themselves, the Blue Apron website does not provide much public health and safety information. It touts the sustainability of its farms and talks about how they are changing the food system. However, without creating an account, potential subscribers cannot see a recipe card or list of ingredients for each menu item, though Blue Apron does provide publicly viewable sample recipes for each week. You don’t even get to see what the packaging would look like or what is included.

After some digging on their site, I finally found food safety information at the bottom of the screen. Blue Apron facilities and the farms it uses are inspected by internal employees and third-party auditors for compliance to regulations, sanitation, and food safety (although, those inspections did not prevent previous occupational safety concerns). Instructions for proper handling, including cooking and storing temperatures, are included. As for the packaging, Blue Apron meal kits are insulated to keep temperatures more stable – however, you still should refrigerate the contents as soon as your box arrives at your door to ensure it stays fresh.

HelloFresh

As a strong contender for the second-place spot in meal kit popularity, HelloFresh is doing a lot of things people like. But that doesn’t mean the company hasn’t seen its fair share of problems. Last year, HelloFresh issued a recall of its meal kits due to Listeria contamination in its frozen pea supply. Perhaps this is what led to the company’s currently active search for a new Head of Food Safety & Quality Assurance.

As if that isn’t bad enough, HelloFresh fared the worst in a test of the effectiveness of several subscription meal services’ packaging with respect to how cold it kept the food. According to an NBC affiliate in Florida, none of the food in the HelloFresh test package was at an appropriately cold temperature when it arrived. While none of the subscription services they tested – including Blue Apron and Plated – were perfect, HelloFresh is the only one that failed in every category.

When it comes to healthiness of the ingredients, the HelloFresh website allows visitors to view recipes and ingredients, and allergens are clearly labeled. The company claims to pack the meat and dairy ingredients in special packaging to make sure it stays fresh – although it does not specify what is special about the packaging.

Environmentally speaking, HelloFresh provides instructions about how to recycle all of the packing materials, including the box, thermal liners, and ice packs (as applicable). The company also notes that they use sustainable ingredients, seafood from Seafood Watch approved vendors.

Plated

Plated – which was purchased by Albertson’s grocery stores in September – is another popular meal subscription service. Its new ownership could help propel the brand to a higher place on the popularity scale.

While we could not find any specific recalls or safety-related reports for Plated, the company suffers from similar problems as the others listed above. The meals arrive in insulated boxes that the company boasts will keep food fresh until midnight on the day of delivery – but as the test referred to above for HelloFresh indicated, that may not be entirely accurate!

From a sustainability perspective, Plated promises that the pork and poultry used in its meal kits comes from pigs and fowl raised without antibiotics, and its beef is free from added hormones. It also claims to use seafood that has been sustainably caught or farmed, and sticks to organic ingredients when possible (but not always).

Basic nutrition information is available on the company’s website, along with a list of ingredients and allergens present in the kits. The facilities handle all the major allergens, not a problem for most people with allergies as there are required to be safeguards against cross-contamination. Plated also gives subscribers the option of removing offending ingredients from the recipe.

Other Meal Subscription Services

The explosion in meal subscription services in the last year or so shows that there are a lot of people interested in fast, easy-to-make, healthy dishes that get delivered to your door.

Alphabetical List of Other Meal Subscription Kits

  • Boxwalla Food
  • Burgabox
  • ButcherBox
  • Candy Club
  • Carnivore Club
  • Daily Harvest
  • Degustabox USA
  • Dinnerly
  • Foodstirs
  • Freshly
  • Gobble
  • Graze
  • Green Chef
  • Handpick
  • Hatchery
  • Home Chef
  • Mantry
  • Marley Spoon
  • MealPro
  • Munchery
  • Nature Box
  • Peach Dish
  • PlateJoy
  • Purple Carrot
  • Takeout Kit
  • Terra’s Kitchen
  • Veestro
  • Yummy Bazaar

* This list is incomplete and ever changing. Many more food subscription boxes exist, with more starting every day!

Before you subscribe to a service, though, make sure to do your research. Search for answers to questions like:

  • Has the service had any major recalls?
  • Does the service offer refunds for damaged boxes or spoiled food?
  • What information can you see about each box before it arrives?
  • Can you adjust the contents of the box to eliminate allergens or other problematic foods?
  • What options do you have if something from the box makes you or someone else sick?

If you do subscribe to a meal subscription service, here are some things you should do to ensure you and your family don’t get sick:

  • Make sure your delivery person knows where to leave your kit so it stays safe and shaded.
  • Bring the kit into your house as soon as possible, to minimize exposure to the sun or harsh elements.
  • Check for tampering or damage before opening the meal kit.
  • Refrigerate perishable components as soon as possible to prevent bacteria growth.
  • Inspect the ingredient list and warnings carefully for any allergens that may pose problems.
  • Prepare the kit as indicated by the instructions provided.
  • Practice good hygiene when preparing meals and storing leftovers.

Should You Subscribe?

While all of these meal subscription services have websites with pretty words and bold claims, none of them offer any real specifics – at least not without creating an account. With the meal kit business expected to increase by $5 billion over the next decade, that could be a problem, and companies that provide more details about their health and safety practices will hopefully rise above those that hide such information.

It’s worth noting that the FDA has not yet issued any guidance specific to subscription meal kits yet. While most meal kit companies are labeling allergens and taking precautions against bacterial growth, it is hard to know whether they are following the same regulations as other food companies and grocery stores when it comes to food safety.

If you use a meal kit plan or are considering one, make sure take some time to ask questions about allergens, preventing food spoilage, and other food issues that matter to you, such as use of antibiotics or pesticides. If you are unsure about the safety of your meal kit, then perhaps it is better to stick with traditional shopping and meal preparation techniques.