Are parents accidentally giving their kids food poisoning? -

How safe is your sack lunch?

How safe is the food in your child's packed lunch? When researchers tested the temperature of about 1,300 perishable foods inside preschoolers' lunch bags, only 22 snacks were temperature safe.

In other words, 98 percent of the food those children were about to eat could be classified as a health hazard due to the risk of food poisoning.

Its easy to remember to pack their favorite sandwich and snacks, but if you aren't packing something to keep it all cold, you may be sending your children off for a lesson on food poisoning.

Milk, mayonnaise, lunch meat, leftovers and yogurt are all standard fare in most lunch boxes.

These items could become a food safety fiasco if they're not packed with enough cooling protection.

"As parents, we're kind of gambling with our children," says Johnson & Wales Culinary Instructor Ray Zoller. 

We asked this dad to prove it by putting the lunches he packs for his children to the temperature test.

We prepared two typical lunches one morning. One was placed in a freezer bag with a frozen bottle, and the other was simply placed in a brown bag. 

We sent Carolyn and Jesse Mays to school with those lunch sacks where they were left for hours until lunchtime. 

"When I open the cabinet, it smells like stale bread or moldy meat," Carolyn says. 

The temperature inside a locker or classroom is probably about 70 degrees. That's almost smack dab in the middle of the danger zone, the temperature range where bacteria that cause food poisoning begin to multiply. 

Perishables in that zone for over two hours should be taken to the trash, not the lunch room.

"Whenever I pull out my food, its kind of warm," said Jesse. 

That's why we immediately pulled those bags away and brought them back to their dad who is a culinary instructor at Johnson & Wales. He couldn't believe what we discovered about his children's food.

"It blew my mind," he said.

Despite the still frozen ice and freezer bag, the temperature of the milk made it up to 66 degrees. While it was cooler than the milk in the brown bag at 74 degrees, both are not safe to drink.

So bringing your own milk to school is not a better option than your school's milk program, Ray says.

Both the yogurts and the sandwiches were well above the 40-degree danger mark.

The freezer bag kept them cooler, but meat and mayonnaise that has reached 68 degrees should not make its way to your mouth.

"Its an accident waiting to happen if it hasn't been stored correctly," Ray said. 

Just leave out those leftovers which came in at 76 and 64 degrees Fahrenheit. 

"It's going to continue to feed of the other proteins, the moisture and the warmth and you are going to have a recipe for disaster," Ray says. 

Here are a few nuggets of information on keeping those lunch sacks safe.  

From your arsenal of food wraps, always pick plastic wraps because they don't retain heat like foil.

If there's no access to a school or work refrigerator, bail on the brown bag completely unless everything inside is meant to be stored at room temperature like a fruit cup.

Ray also advises making the meal the night before and storing it in the refrigerator and lunch bag overnight which will keep it cooler, longer.

If you have been packing meat and dairy items without ice, you're lucky you haven't gotten salmonella or E. Coli.

Ray says if you don't have access to a refrigerator to place your lunch bag, the best way to keep those food items cool is to put a big blue ice pack on the bottom and look for one that is flexible so you can wrap it right around your perishables.

Sending your kids off to school or work to sharpen their skills and knowing they won't return home with a sick stomach is something the whole family can smile about.

More information:

  • Our story was based on a study conducted in Texas. Researchers visited nine preschool centers on three separate occasions and measured the temperature of hundreds of sandwiches, yogurts and other perishables with a heat-sensing gun. (Time magazine)
  • This study was published in the journal "Pediatrics". (Time)
  • The average temperature of perishables evaluated in the study was 63.7 degrees.
  • In the study, only half of all lunches included ice packs, but even those containing multiple ice packs were in the danger zone.
  • According to the study, children under 4 experience food-related bacterial infections up to 4.5 times the rate of adults ages 20-49, depending on the bacteria.
  • Foods that must be kept less than 40 degrees includes meat, eggs, milk, soft cheese, yogurt, peeled or cut fruit/veggies, opened fruit juice containers, and pasta salad.
  • Foods safe to consume at room temperature include bread, crackers, cereal, peanut butter, uncut fruit and veggies, dried fruit, unopened juice box, hard cheese, and nuts. Click to read more.

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