Study finds students' lunches ripe for bacteria growth

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - You probably pack your child's lunch for school to save money. But the lunch you pack could make them sick. A study found many kids' lunches are ripe for salmonella, E. coli, and listeria.

When parent Joe Taravella packs his kids' lunches, he looks for healthy foods.

"Today we did soy butter and jelly for a sandwich," he said.

But many parents send their kids to school with lunches that could potentially make them sick.

"I'm shocked, you know," reacted Taravella. "I feel like I'm failing as a parent."

University of Texas researchers tested 705 pre-schooler's sack lunches that sat at room temperature for a few hours before lunchtime. They found 97% of the meats, 99% percent of the dairy products, and 99% of the vegetables in the lunches were in what's called the "danger zone."

Explained Chris Gordon, Environmental Health Manager for the Virginia Health Department, "Listeria, E. coli, salmonella, those pathogens in the temperature danger zone get a foothold and grow rapidly."

Cold foods are supposed to be kept at least 41 degrees Fahrenheit. Once you take them out of the fridge, they start to warm up and the clock starts ticking. If they sit at any temperature warmer than 41 for more than 4 hours, bacteria that can make kids sick starts growing a lot faster.

Same goes for hot foods that start cooling off below 135 degrees.

Said Gordon, "If it's beyond that time frame, there's a risk potentially. If it was left out overnight and not refrigerated and somebody threw it in a bag, ... that's not a good strategy if you want to serve safe food to kids."

The study even found lunches with cold packs were sitting at unsafe temperatures.

The problem is worse for kids under age 4. Doctors say they're 4.5 times more likely than adults to get bacterial infections from food because they have weaker immune systems.

Said Gordon, "Obviously gastrointestinal symptoms, classic vomiting, GI issues, diarrhea."

To see how lunches fair at room temperature, we conducted our own test. We made lunches and put them in different kinds of lunch boxes. We refrigerated the lunches in the lunch boxes overnight, then took them out before school. After leaving them at room temperature for 4.5 hours, we asked an expert from the Virginia Health Department, Chris Gordon, to see if they're still safe to eat.

You might think an insulated lunch box would help maintain food temperatures. But after 4 and half hours, our bologna sandwich was 72 degrees Fahrenheit.

Said Gordon, "At this temperature, because it's a deli meat, listeria is going to grow quite nicely."

And the yogurt, Gordon found, "it's 68 degrees Fahrenheit." Too warm to be safe after 4 hours.

Next we put leftover pizza and hard boiled eggs by themselves in a cooler. After 4 hours, "The temperature looks like its risen, it's 70 degrees," Gordon showed us.

Think a cold pack would help? One sandwich sat on a frozen cold pack.

"50, 49, so it is about 20 degrees cooler," said Gordon. "So you're buying yourself a little bit more time."

Gordon says the sandwich likely stayed 41 degrees longer, but once it started warming up, the 4 hour clock started ticking.

Milk in a thermos stayed cold longer, too. "54 degrees Fahrenheit," he found. But still above 41 degrees.

There are things you can do to help keep your kids' lunch safe.

Choose foods that don't spoil easily: like fruits and vegetables with peels, dry foods, and peanut butter.

Put a cold pack next to cold foods.

Put the whole lunch in the lunch box in the refrigerator overnight. Don't take it out until 4 hours or less before your child eats.

Ask if your school has a refrigerator where students' lunches can be stored.

And freeze juices and drinks or use a thermos. The frozen drinks can serve as cold packs for other foods, but will melt so your child can drink them at lunch.

Those steps will help keep your child's lunch cold longer and reduce the chances for harmful bacteria to grow.

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