With all the rave about the deterioration of government-subsidized school lunch programs, parents are understandably starting to pack lunches for their youngsters. But despite parents’ best intentions, home-packed school lunches can be breeding grounds foodbourne illnesses.
A study showing as many as 90 percent of the school lunches brought from home might be unsafe because they aren’t stored at the right temperature has local food safety advocates suggesting parents place ice packs around cut-open or prepared food — to at least help maintain safe temperatures.
Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin tested the temperatures of 700 packed lunches of 3- to 5-year-old children at one day-care center. Their findings, released Monday, showed that even in a heated thermal container or in a bag with ice packs, as many as 90 percent of lunches were in the “thermal danger zone” that could cause foodborne illness.
Let’s not take for granted that Texas is going through a record heat-wave and drought, so some of these figures might increase.
According to story published on Montgomery Advertiser, parents are stuck in a predicament because they cannot be sure if their child’s school is taking the proper steps to insure the sack lunches’ integrity, and they either can’t or don’t have enough time to bring lunches directly to the school at lunchtime.
“When the (child) goes to lunch, he’s not going to stick a thermometer in (his food), so unless there are refrigerators or coolers at school, there’s no guarantee — not if they are eating something that has to be cut open, or something that is prepared prior to, like an apple or a meat sandwich,” said Debbie Harris, who manages the Food Safety Training Center at One Dexter Plaza.
Keeping ice packs or other cold items around certain foods does help, Harris said.
“But once it reaches that temperature danger zone, it needs to be thrown away and not consumed,” she said. “The safety of the kids is most important.”
But according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention keeping food in a safe range over a long period of time is difficult. Perishable foods kept between 40 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit (4 to 60 degrees Celsius) for more than two hours are no longer safe to eat, according to the CDC.
“The problem is going to be guaranteeing that it is kept at that temperature,” Harris said.
Cammie Ashmore makes sure sandwiches are sandwiched between cold items when packing school lunches for her children.
One in six Americans gets food poisoning every year, but it is unclear how many cases are caused by lukewarm sack lunches, according to the CDC.
The Texas-based study, released in the journal Pediatrics, is the first to check how the food that kids bring to school is doing about an hour and a half before lunchtime.
Although 45 percent of the packed lunches included an ice pack and 12 percent were kept in refrigerators, nearly all of the perishable foods were in the danger zone.
That means bacteria that cause food poisoning, such as E. coli and salmonella, could be multiplying quickly inside the sandwiches that kids eat, according to the study.
“Temperature control is to control the growth of the bacteria,” said Mark Sestak, director of the state health department’s food and lodging branch.
“As the temperature goes up, bacteria grows more rapidly. In three hours time, there shouldn’t be a lot of bacterial growth unless there was some kind of cross contamination.”
Harris said if parents can afford it, a healthy alternative to ensuring lunches are at ideal temperatures is to eat the food prepared by the school.
Parents “can put ice bags in (lunch boxes) all that they want to, but they have to find a way to guarantee that their food is safe,” she said. “This doesn’t just affect their health right now. This is affecting their longevity to be able to fight diseases and ailments in the future.”
The bottom line, Harris said, is hot food should be served hot, and cold, cold.
“Once it falls from that temperature, the bacteria multiplies and creates toxins that make it not safe to eat,” she said.