LOS ANGELES — Think that turkey sandwich you packed for your kid's lunch will be at a safe temperature — safe and sound from food-borne illness — when they sit down to eat it? Maybe not: A study finds that few sack lunches can be kept at proper temperatures until lunch time.
The study, released Monday in the journal Pediatrics, looked at temperatures of 705 lunches containing at least one perishable item belonging to children 3 to 5 years old. Food was removed from containers, and temperatures were measured by a temperature gun about an hour and a half before the lunches were served.
What researchers found wasn't good: Only 1.6 percent of 1,361 perishable items were found to be in a safe temperature range. Broken down, 97.4 percent of meats, 99 percent of dairy items and 95.8 percent of vegetables weren't at acceptable temperatures.
About 45 percent of the lunches had one ice pack, and about 39 percent had no ice packs. Even having an ice pack didn't guarantee that the food would be well chilled. Among 618 perishable items that contained one pack, only 14 of them were at acceptable temperature ranges. Having two to four ice packs sometimes wasn't enough; 8.2 percent of the 61 items with multiple packs were in a safe zone.
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Ice packs were of various sizes and shapes, and in 15 of the lunches, researchers found ice pack substitutes such as frozen teething rings.
Even storing food in a refrigerator wasn't always good enough. Only 0.9 percent of 458 items in 83 lunches kept in refrigerators used by teachers were in the right temperature range.
The lunches that were tested were from child-care centers in Texas. A minority of the lunches (11.8 percent) were stored in refrigerators; the rest were at room temperature, kept in a storage cube with not much air circulating. Most lunches — about 91 percent — were packed in thermally insulated plastic bags.
In the study, researchers said that time, energy and lack of knowledge could be to blame for improperly packed and stored lunches, and they said that leaving food at unsafe temperatures for long periods could cause food-borne illnesses.
So what's a parent to do? Putting lunches in well-insulated lunch bags with cold packs surrounding perishable foods are a good place to start, said Ruth Frechman, a registered dietitian based in Burbank, Calif., and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. She said that food should not be left out for more than two hours, or no more than one hour if it's 90 degrees or hotter. "Make sure the lunch is as cold as it would be if it was stored in a refrigerator," which is about 40 degrees or cooler.
And even though many people grew up eating unrefrigerated lunches stored in paper bags with no cold packs, that shouldn't mean today's kids are safe.
"There wasn't always the media to highlight kids getting sick," Frechman said. "It was just a fact of life if someone got food poisoning. ... The potential for food-borne illnesses is there, so it's never a good idea to take a chance," she said. "Bacteria grows fast, so prevention is the key."
Packing lunches with foods that are less likely to cause food-borne illnesses is another good idea, said registered dietitian Sarah Krieger, also with the American Dietetic Association. She suggests trying applesauce cups or other fruit (without added sugar), whole-grain bread spread with soy nut butter or hummus, or trail mix with whole-grain cereal.