On Monday, just about every media outlet you can think of reported on this study from the forthcoming September issue of the journal Pediatrics. The attention-grabbing headline was that more than 90% of home-packed lunches brought by 700 kids to daycare had reached unsafe temperatures by the time they were eaten.
Noting that cold foods should be stored below 40 degrees Fahrenheit and hot foods above 140 degrees, the study concluded that less than 2% of lunches tested containing perishable foods were within the safe temperature zone (even though half of those lunches contained at least one ice pack.) The study’s authors urged parents to use yet more ice packs to prevent foodborne illnesses and concluded that “[s]afe practices and relationships between food handling and personal health need to be taught and reinforced.”
Now, no one wants to pooh-pooh the prospect of little kids falling ill from food poisoning, but I know I’m not the only parent (and daily packer of school lunches) who heard about this study and, well, scoffed. (Other blasé moms quoted here, for example.) If over 90% of kids are bringing unsafe lunches each and every day, shouldn’t we be seeing a constant epidemic of stomach ailments around the country? A critical piece of the puzzle is missing here, which even the study’s authors acknowledge in their conclusion:
This topic merits more extensive study, that more closely examines the number of foodborne illness cases in preschool aged children who bring lunch from home compared with others who eat school-prepared lunch.
Or put another way, as a pediatrician noted in an MSNBC report:
. . . there is a missing piece: it doesn’t tell you what this does to the relative risk of disease . . . . The risk could be going from one in a million to one in 950,000, or it could be going to one in a thousand. We don’t know.
To be honest, my real food safety concern in packing my own kids’ lunches has less to do with keeping cold foods cold (surprising, since we live in Houston) and more to do with the hot lunches I sometimes pack in their Thermoses. Those foods do sometimes contain more potentially dangerous ingredients, like meats, and I know for sure that Thermoses rarely live up to their promise of keeping foods piping hot until serving. But do you know what? I’ve been packing those Thermoses since preschool, my oldest is now heading off to middle school, and we have yet to have a single problem. Kina hora. (Non-Jewish readers, see here.)
So while the study does serve as an important reminder about food safety, I just can’t get too excited about it. But maybe I’m being too cavalier? What do all you fellow home-made-lunch-packers think?
Meanwhile, while we’re talking about home-packed lunches, just wanted to mention that Gina of the Feed Our Families blog has posted a fantastic round-up of every kind of kid-safe lunch gear you can imagine, from reusable sandwich bags to entire “lunch box systems.” So as you head out to replace your kids’ lunch box items before school starts in a few weeks, be sure to check it out.
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