A Wednesday afternoon session at the 2022 Institute for the Advancement of Food and Nutrition Sciences' (IAFNS') Annual Meeting and Science Symposium addressed the food safety concerns associated with the rise of e-commerce, ghost kitchens, and delivery in food retail. The panel of speakers was moderated by Donald Schaffner, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor at Rutgers University; and included William Hallman, Ph.D., Professor at Rutgers University; Jorge Hernandez, Vice President of Quality Assurance at Wendy’s; and Liz Duffy, Senior Director of Global Omnichannel Regulatory Compliance at Walmart.

The Safety of Meat Ordered Online

Dr. Hallman discussed the food safety shortcomings associated with meats ordered online and possible solutions. Dr. Hallman’s conclusions were based on a joint research project that he conducted alongside Tennessee State University academics, which was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA’s NIFA). The study, titled, “Identifying Food Safety Risk Factors and Educational Strategies for Consumers Purchasing Seafood and Meat Products Online,” evaluated meat, poultry, seafood, and game products that were ordered online and delivered by FedEx, UPS, and USPS. The research project included a consumer survey, an examination of e-commerce retailers’ websites and delivery policies, and product shipments.

The researchers found that hundreds of vendors offering perishable meat products exist across the U.S. However, there is no central registry of vendors, nor is there federal regulatory oversight of these vendors. Additionally, there are very few barriers to entry for online meat and seafood vendors.

The consumer survey revealed that one in ten U.S. consumers have participated in the e-commerce meat and food retail market, and that these consumers have a high level of trust in the safety of the food they receive from e-commerce retailers. Despite consumers’ confidence, the study found several areas for concern with e-commerce food retail. For instance, deliveries made via USPS, UPS, or FedEx are not temperature-controlled, and only 5 percent of the vendors included in the study required a signature upon delivery. Due to shipping services’ indiscriminate handling of food product deliveries, Dr. Hallman asserted that products must be adequately packaged to ensure proper temperatures. Products that are left on customers’ doorstep—when a signature is not required upon delivery—are also at a greater risk of experiencing improper temperatures.

The researchers found that, in many cases, packaging of food products that were ordered online was inadequate, and that vendors often provide incorrect food safety information both on food packaging and on their websites. “I think the worst advice that we saw over and over again was, [if the food is] ‘cool to the touch,’ it is safe,” said Dr. Hallman. 

Delivered packages exhibited issues with improper packaging material, improper use of coolants, and unsuitable delivery temperatures. Dr. Hallman stated that nearly half (47 percent) of the studied products arrived with surface temperatures above 40 degrees Fahrenheit, rendering the food unsafe to consume.

Dr. Hallman summarized that unsafe food product surface temperatures, a lack of food safety information and inaccurate food safety information coming from vendors, consumers’ confidence in the safety of e-commerce food retail, and barriers to reporting delivery problems and receiving refunds are factors that place consumers at an increased risk of foodborne illness. However, Dr. Hallman elaborated in his answers to questions from attendees that many e-commerce food vendors delivered safe products, and therefore, there are best practices that can increase the food safety of the e-commerce food sector. For example, freezing food for shipment, using dry ice and proper dunnage in packaging, training employees, and implementing a quality assurance system can help mitigate food safety risks. Finally, Dr. Hallman likened the emerging e-commerce food sector to the “Wild West,” and called for a central registry and federal regulation of vendors.

Food Safety Management Systems (FSMS) for Untraditional Facilities

Jorge Hernandez spoke about FSMS for ghost kitchens (sometimes referred to as "dark kitchens"), which are “a new model [of foodservice] that has emerged over the last few years and has continued to grow,” according to Mr. Hernandez. “Ghost kitchens are here to stay,” he said, and continued to explain how the same factors that make ghost kitchens efficient also pose food safety risks.

Ghost kitchens involve multiple food businesses operating in the same kitchen while sharing space, storage, equipment, staff, and ingredients. “There is nothing wrong with [the ghost kitchen model] if it is done right,” stated Mr. Hernandez. However, customers often do not know when they are ordering food delivery from a ghost kitchen rather than a traditional restaurant, and the sharing of resources within a ghost kitchen requires the careful management of cross-contamination and allergen risks. 

As ghost kitchens are a new and evolving model, local food safety regulatory bodies often do not account for ghost kitchens and inadequately regulate their operations. One attendee asked how regulators can begin to comprehend ghost kitchens and other emerging, untraditional foodservice models. Mr. Hernandez responded, “…maybe [the solution] isn’t about understanding each model, it is about understanding the science of FSMS and adapting that to new models.” He continued, “[Foodservice models] will continue to change and evolve, so it is important to rely on the science of food safety.”

Using Technology to Ensure Food Safety

Liz Duffy discussed how industry can leverage a technology-first approach to assuring food safety in grocery delivery. She stressed a problem-focused approach when crafting solutions to mitigate food safety risks. “It is important to consider: what are the risks, how do we look at the science associated with those risks, and how do we manage those risks to make [solutions] possible?” Ms. Duffy said.

Ms. Duffy explained that food safety controls need to be designed for the models of the future, rather than the worker of the past. For example, many solutions revolve around training, but different solutions will need to be implemented as industries increasingly rely on automation. However, automation also provides opportunity to leverage technology that can enhance food safety.

Digital labels, which are necessary for products that are listed online, provide unique advantages that physical labels do not, such as the abilities to update digital labels and to integrate digital labels with customer search functions. Another way online ordering systems can leverage technology to enhance food safety is by deciding product availability based on a product’s proximity to a customer and other factors. This solution would ensure that products are available for a customer to purchase only if it can be safely delivered to the customer. 

When preparing to deliver a product to a customer, Ms. Duffy recommends that picking and packing staff are given automated packing directives and efficient delivery routes to “take the decision away” from employees and ensure the highest levels of efficiency and food safety. Ms. Duffy also suggested that retailers make use of digitized quality and safety checks for the products they are delivering. Another innovative, technology-enabled solution that Ms. Duffy presented was the possibility of determining dynamic delivery times based on local weather.

When crafting solutions to food safety risks, Ms. Duffy highlighted the power of a holistic approach. Sometimes, the best solution may not be the biggest or the most obvious, she explained. “Fall in love with solving the problem,” Ms. Duffy said, “do not fall in love with the solution and trying to make one solution work.”

When an attendee inquired about how to convince regulators to evolve alongside industry, Ms. Duffy stated that science and collaboration will power the future. “[Industry] has to collaborate with and show regulators that we need to regulate the problems, not the solutions,” she said. “Focus on the risk.”

The IAFNS 2022 Annual Meeting and Science Symposium is taking place June 21, 2022–June 23, 2022, both virtually and in-person in Washington D.C.