August 29, 2017

Home Delivery and the Challenges it Brings

Written by SmartSense

As you’ve probably been reading in the headlines, home delivery is one of the hottest trends in the food services industry. Online shopping and delivery services such as Stop & Shop’s Peapod and AmazonFresh, report increasing numbers of customers every quarter. Innovative home meal kit companies like Blue Apron and HelloFresh, are taking off. Even fast food chains that never delivered food before, like McDonald’s, are getting into the action.

That’s great for new market shares and larger profits. But it may not be so great for consumers—at least regarding food safety guidelines. As with many new food innovations, safety regulations for home delivery are lagging. And with few current barriers into online food sales, many “newbie” companies may make sales their only priority and raise the risk of spreading foodborne illness.

In this post, we’ll take a look at some of the reasons for the growth of home delivery service, the current state of regulations, and two of the most important safety issues that need to be improved upon as the industry moves forward: unsafe packaging and inadequate temperature monitoring.


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Home Delivery: Big Business Getting Bigger

So why the sudden massive growth of home delivery services? A recent blog post from Packaged Facts provides some good historical context for the phenomenon. Home delivery is actually nothing new. A century ago, it was common practice for your neighborhood grocer to take orders over the phone, package the goods, and deliver them to your doorstep. But after WWI, retail innovations and the rise of the automobile increasingly transformed the suburban shopping experience into self-service supermarkets and warehouse clubs that were able to reduce prices significantly by eliminating delivery services.

Now, that’s all changing. Supermarket shopping is no longer seen as convenient as it used to be. With longer working hours and less free time, men and women are seeking a better work-life balance. Long supermarket trips seem unnecessarily stressful when food retailers offer online ordering and door-to-door delivery. In fact, Frank Yiannas, Walmart’s Vice President of Food Safety, predicts that by 2025, 20% of food will be sold online.

Especially with the rise of Amazon Prime, online ordering is no longer merely an alternative; it’s becoming the norm. In fact, 75% of American food shoppers are aware of meal and grocery home delivery services. In addition, digital and mobile devices have gained wide acceptance because of ease of use. In some areas, shoppers can schedule deliveries 24/7 and receive them in 20 minutes. But, that’s the ideal situation and by far the minority.


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Food Safety, Home Delivery & FSMA

It’s one thing to order books and clothing online for home delivery--quite another to receive perishable foods. More than 500 American online vendors currently sell raw meat, poultry, game, and seafood products with direct delivery to consumers using FedEx®, UPS®, and the USPS®. In 2014, about 1 in 10 Americans purchased such items from an online purveyor. Customers don’t just trust that the food they receive is safe to eat—they usually don’t even perceive the risks, such as cross-contamination, temperature, cleanliness, and safe handling procedures.

What guidelines are in place to ensure safe and wholesome products? Outside of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), not many. As part of the Act’s proactive approach to compliance and quality assurance regarding food safety, its Sanitary Transport Rule was put in place to keep food safe from contamination in temperature-controlled environments throughout the supply chain. Since the Rule impacts shippers, loaders, carriers, and receivers, if your business offers home delivery, then it applies to you. The main weakness of FSMA is that enforcement is costly and difficult. FSMA largely relies on businesses taking on the responsibility of food safety themselves.


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The Issue of Packaging

Improper packaging is a perfect example of where home delivery services often fail to comply with the FSMA. A joint study by Rutgers and Tennessee State Universities found that parcels of perishable foods were not being treated any differently than other products delivered by FedEx, UPS, and USPS, who can legally disclaim responsibility if the perishable products become spoiled or damaged during the delivery process. Their other findings were not encouraging:

  • Gel packs, the most popular method used by shippers to keep food cold, are inferior to dry ice in the online/mail-order format.
  • Containers used to ship perishable foods are often much larger than necessary; 63% did not have packing materials to fill the empty space, which compromises temperature control measures.
  • Only 37% of the deliveries had visible information indicating the parcels contained perishable foods; only 25% had food safety information inside the containers.
  • Only 5% of 427 vendors studied specifically require a signature upon delivery, which means 95% of packages may be left outside for 8 hours or more, resulting in exposure to extreme temperatures.

The Issue of Temperature Monitoring

Improper packaging leads directly to the issue of temperature, which is the real root of the problem. If packages cannot be trusted to maintain cold or cool temperatures on their own, then they clearly must be monitored to check for excursions. In fact, the FSMA Sanitary Transport Rule requires that distributors and shippers are responsible for temperature control and for keeping records of if and how temperatures were maintained during the transportation process. Without remote, continuous monitoring, complying with the Rule is virtually impossible.

Researchers working on the same university study found that almost half of the food orders they tracked arrived at temperatures above 40 degrees F. That’s the top limit of the safe temperature zone. Some of the foods were measured as high a 75 degrees F, a breeding ground for pathogens. For this very reason, the study recommends that online vendors of perishable foods should be required to add sensors to packages to alert when contents exceed safe temperatures.

William Hallman, a director of the study and chairman of Rutger’s Department of Human Ecology, advocates more than just federal regulations. Instead, he believes the food industry should be proactive and ship home-delivered food expecting the worst-case scenario, not the best-case scenario, which is what they’re doing now. Walmart’s Frank Yiannas agrees and has issued a call-to-action urging businesses engaged in the home delivery of perishable foods to demand packaging innovations that include temperature monitoring to protect their customers.

Keep Your Customers Safe

As home delivery services are becoming more popular, it’s important to be proactive and to have plans in place regarding temperature monitoring, proper food safety information and labeling, appropriate packaging and transportation environments, and strong customer support. Stay tuned for our upcoming blog post where we will dive deeper into industry recommendations for the safe home delivery of foods.

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