The sack lunches of most preschoolers reach potentially unsafe temperatures by the time kids eat them — even if an ice-pack was included, a new study suggests.
Ninety percent of the 705-preschooler sack lunches tested by University of Texas scientists had risen to temperatures considered too high to prevent the growth of bacteria, the researchers reported Monday in the journal Pediatrics. Unsafe, as the researchers defined it, was anything that sat for more than two hours between 39 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. But that doesn't mean kids are actually getting sick.
The results simply show that how parents pack their kids’ lunches could inadvertently lead to foodborne illness, Fawaz Almansour and his colleagues concluded.
The researchers tested lunch temperatures at nine Texas daycare centers an hour and a half before the food was consumed by the preschoolers. Of the 705 lunches tested, 39 percent had no ice packs and 45 percent had a least one. The majority of the lunches — 82 percent — were at room temperature by the time they were tested.
Less than 2 percent of the perishable items tested were in the “safe” range, Almansour and his colleagues reported.
Even lunches that were kept in daycare refrigerators tended to be in the “unsafe” range. That might be because daycare workers tended to be slow about putting lunches in refrigerators, often waiting hours to store food away. Only 1 percent of the perishable items from refrigerated lunches were in the “safe” range.
But while the findings sound alarming, it’s not yet clear what kind of impact those high temperatures actually have on the risk of kids developing foodborne illness.
“This is a provocative study,” said Dr. Michael Green, a pediatrician with the division of infectious diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and a professor of pediatrics and surgery at the School of Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh. “Their findings certainly raise concern. But there is a missing piece: it doesn’t tell you what this does to the relative risk of disease.”
While the temperatures of the perishable items in lunches may not have been in an appropriate range, this doesn’t necessarily translate into a big jump in the risk of foodborne illness, he said.
“The risk could be going from one in a million to one in 950,000,” Green explained. “Or it could be going to one in a thousand. We don’t know.”
Until we know what kind of risk these warmer lunches pose, he says it’s impossible to give advice to parents.
Moms interviewed by msnbc.com took the new findings with a grain of salt.
Colleen Prater, a 41-year-old mother of three from Woodstown, N.J., says her older children have been bringing packed lunches to school for years without a problem. She doesn’t plan to change a thing when her youngest starts pre-kindergarten this fall. She includes an ice pack to help keep things cool.
“I think the stuff we put in their lunches is pretty safe even if the temperatures go up,” Prater said. “We give them peanut butter and jelly or ham and cheese along with a fruit and a snack.”
Jessica Lamb just isn’t convinced that lunches that attain room temperatures are going to hurt anyone’s kids.
“I have a friend who grew up in Hawaii who went to school almost every day with tuna fish with gobs of mayonnaise,” said Lamb, a 36-year-old mother of two from San Jose, Calif. “She never had an ice-pack or a cooler. And she never got sick.”
Just to be on the safe side, though, Lamb sticks with vegetarian choices when she packs a lunch — almond butter and jelly or a bean burrito, for example. She does include an ice-pack, but “that’s because stuff tastes better when it’s a little cooler.”