A recent study out of the Kansas State University observed hot temperatures imposed on the food in kids’ lunch boxes may be causing them illness. The research stated that, over time inside the lunch boxes, even with the ice packed at the bottom, the top layer of the food actually does warm up. “We found that the maximum interior temperature of the buses that we monitored reached a hundred and five degrees Fahrenheit,” said Professor Randy Phebus of the Food Science Institute at the Kansas State University. Lunch Box Salmonella is a thing!
Sara Gregg, assistant professor of animal sciences and industry said that the products were put through a worst-case scenario to see how they would have hold up to the harsh conditions. “Our goal was to try to simulate the worst case that a food product on a field trip might encounter so what we did was we took lunch meat sandwiches, baby carrot and also, apple slices and we inoculated them with Salmonella or Listeria monocytogenes and we placed them into sack lunches and into coolers,” added Gregg.
According to Gregg, their data only confirms previous food safety regulations. “The FDA food code which suggests that time can be used as a public health control up to four hours, we were basically demonstrating with our data that that is sound advice.”
Research associate professor Paula Paez said that this study in particular is important because of its association with schools. “When you think about different places where you can go eat out, schools are one of the safest places that is required by federal regulations to have a plan,” she said.
Even while this study was insightful on food safety concerns, professor Paez says that there is still more research that needs to be done. “Keep in mind that we only looked at three different food products here, we still have more information to add here and when things get hot, a little more ice never hurt anyone,” she said. She recommended that coolers be packed with at least 3 layers of ice if possible.
The study is featured in the January February issue of the food protection trend.
This is not the first study that has found harmful pathogens in kids’ lunch boxes.
A study done in 2016 by e-cloth suggested that 73% of fabric lunch boxes contain high levels of nasty bacteria. When left uncleaned, these molds can grow into spores and lead to problems like itchy eyes, eczema, coughs, asthma and migraine. The research also showed presence of Staphylococci (20%), mainly Staphylococcus Aureus and Enterococci. While 1 in 3 people carry Staph harmlessly, Enterococci is mostly found in someone’s gut or bowel.
Even worse, a 2016 study done by TV program “The Doctors” backed up this study and showed that 1 in 5 American lunch boxes and bags contained staph. The study also concluded that fabric lunch boxes are dirtier than plastic or metal lunch boxes.
Where Do We Go from Here?
These bacteria are present in the environment around us and are found on door handles, desks, kitchen surfaces and toilet flushes. These high-volumes of bacteria suggests that we are forgetting the topmost rule of food safety – which is washing your hands before packing or eating from lunch boxes. It also shows that we aren’t washing the lunch boxes properly either, which allows growth of spore and bacteria.
So even if a lunch box looks clean with their shiny exterior, when left unattended, bacteria and mold can party, thrive and multiply comfortably in it.
However, the good news is that we can easily prevent growth of bacteria by following some easy food safety rules. The first among them is washing your hands properly with soap and water or using a hand sanitizer. This prevents bacteria from transferring from our skin to our food.
As parents, you should make sure to wash your children’s lunchboxes after every use. Use white vinegar to disinfect it from time to time and wipe clean. You can also sprinkle some baking soda and leave it on overnight. Most lunchboxes come with instructions on washing that should be followed.
Also, make sure that your child’s lunch box stays in the safe food zone, which means that the cold food stays cold and hot remains hot. Once a child hops on the bus for school, an hour or two passes before he puts his lunch box in the locker or stashes it under the desk, where it can reach the bacteria-friendly temperature. It is advised that perishable foods should not be kept unrefrigerated for more than 2 hours. In hot weather, the time is reduced to one hour. The ‘danger zone’ temperature is 40 to 140 degrees.
Researchers at the University of Texas in Austin found that 95% of packed lunches reach unsafe temperatures. This can give a safe haven for food poisoning bacteria to grow and cause illnesses. It’s recommended that lunch bags should be insulated or packed with an ice pack to keep them at safe temperature. This way the food will stay nutritious and taste better too.
Some foods are safe to pack without refrigeration. Some of these foods are: peanut butter, nuts and seeds, fresh fruits and vegetables, breads, bagels and English muffins, dried fruits, pretzels, popcorn, crackers and canned juices.
After lunch, throw away all the perishable foods, unless you have kept them at a safe temperature and can do it later too.
How to properly clean a lunch box:
- Keep your hands clean while washing the box. Lunch box should be washed after each use. This stops bacteria and mold from thriving in the box.
- Use white vinegar. It is a natural disinfectant. You can also use bicarbonate of soda. Just sprinkle some on the box and leave it on overnight.
- Don’t use baby wipes, tea towel or chemical cleaning spray to clean the lunch box.
- Don’t wash the lunchbox in the washing machine unless it’s mentioned in the instructions on the box. If you machine-wash, there is a chance that thermos layer of the fabric gets damaged.