Why I’m “Breaking Up” with Imperfect Foods (Food Delivery Services and Safety)

Imperfect Foods, is it safe to eat produce that is packed next to raw meat?

by brenda on March 30, 2020

I love that I live in a time when food can just arrive on my doorstep. What a gift! It’s making that lazy life I spoke of yesterday so much more attainable. 😉 But really, as a mom of five kids (ten and up!), we go through a lot of food. Grocery shopping usually feels like a giant task to me. By the end of the trip, the cart feels heavy, and then I have to put it all in the car? And bring it in the house? Then put it all away? And cook it? It’s tiring, for sure!

I first heard of and signed up for Imperfect Foods, which was previously called Imperfect Produce, in October 2018. At first, I weighed all of the food to make sure I was actually getting good prices. I keep track of food costs on a pretty detailed spreadsheet. The first three or four orders were good deals or at least comparable to grocery store prices, give or take a bit. I stopped weighing the food and just kept ordering after that.

My First Imperfect Foods order (Called Imperfect Produce at that time)

I kept my Imperfect Produce deliveries coming either weekly or twice per month from October 2018 through the end of August, 2019. I stopped the service just as we were listing our home for sale and preparing for a giant, cross-country move. Over that time, I spent over $2,000 on Imperfect Produce, an average of a little less than $200 per month. I even had a separate budget category for Imperfect Produce in YNAB and sometimes “stole” from other categories just to get more veggies. 😉 I really liked the service and enjoyed the products. I should mention, at that time, we were living in Oregon.

We moved to central Virginia at the end of January, 2020. By February, I signed up again! They had changed their name to Imperfect Foods and were now carrying decent quality meat. Delightful! I was excited to start up again. How soon could I get my first box?! I increased my Imperfect Foods budget to account for the addition of meat.

My First Order Was Okay

I’m like a giddy little kid when I get fresh produce at the farmer’s market or when it’s delivered to my doorstep. It’s seriously like Christmas for me. I think vegetables are beautiful! I opened my box with utter joy. I didn’t anything alarming with the very first delivery we got in Virginia, so I happily ordered again. The next one was disappointing. And then the next one…And the next one. Here is a photo of the box I received on February 26, 2020:

My Imperfect Foods Order February 26, 2020

Here are the problems I see with this order:

  • Only one pack of turkey is sitting on the ice, the other is next to it, but not touching any ice.
  • Both packs of turkey were completely defrosted, with no ice crystals, and were of a questionable temperature. I ended up throwing it away.
  • There is no insulation in this box, anywhere.
  • Vegetables and fruits that are traditionally eaten raw are sitting directly on top of or next to raw meat packaging. In fact, blueberries had spilled and landed on top of a raw turkey package. Eww.

After the previous order, an employee from Imperfect Foods had texted me to make sure my big order looked good. I still had that phone number, so I sent a picture of this box and mentioned my concerns. The employee responded:

“Oh no!” I’m truly sorry about that. Normally the meats are packaged in an insulated bag.”

They gave me a full refund for the box and said they they were forwarding the issue to their packing team. I wished they could rush out a quick replacement order, because I wasn’t able to use foods I had counted on in my menu plan. I didn’t ask for that, and they didn’t offer…

I Hoped It Would Be Better the Next Time…

My Imperfect Foods order March 10, 2020

Again, the meat was not on the ice pack. There was insulation, but not an insulated bag. There was nothing separating the vegetables and fruits from the produce. The meat was at questionable temperatures, with no ice crystals. I sent a text again, and got no response. Later that day, I got an email response.

“To do our best to prevent this in the future, I flagged your next several boxes for double-checks. This means our pack team will check your box one last time before delivery to help ensure the quality is great and the quantity is right on. Want to give your boxes some extra care.”

Sounds good that they would choose to double check my boxes, but what about the other customers? Was this practice going to continue? The next paragraph made me wonder…

“While our meat is packaged and sealed, everything should be fine to consume unless the meat has been leaking. We ask all customers to always watch their produce regardless, since it does come straight from the Earth. If you ever have meat leaking, please provide a photo because this is crucial feedback for our growth.”

Emphasis added by me–because this is the part that concerns me. As someone who took microbiology courses under a food inspector–and as a human who generally cares about food safety, it sounded like maybe this one employee didn’t quite understand how contamination worked or how dirty meat packaging actually is. In fact, one of the packs of pork chops did leak, but that is beside the point. Meat should not be next to veggies, period.

But, my next boxes would be double checked–there’s no way the company as a whole would think this practice of putting meat next to veggies is okay, right?! They gave me a partial refund in the form of store credits for this order.

I Ordered Again…

I made a big order. I seriously thought that this might help the packing crew–maybe they would put the meats in a separate box…I had such a positive experience with Imperfect Produce in Oregon, I thought, they’ve got to get this right! I hoped they would figure it out. As I waited for my box to arrive, I got the following mixed messages from Imperfect Foods, in email correspondence:

Most of our proteins are vacuum-sealed which makes their shelf life longer — all information regarding shelf life is either provided in the item description during your shopping window or is printed on the label.”

I’m not sure why this makes the following practices okay:

  • Shipping meat in a box where it is nowhere near the single ice pack.
  • Shipping raw meat packages next to vegetables and fruits with no protective barrier.

Another point in the same email said:

“I want you to know that I’ve passed along your experience and concerns to Director of Food/Warehouse Safety and we’ve addressed it with the packing center in your area as the proteins are supposed to be in a separate insulated liner, no different than you packaging your own groceries at the store, as you mentioned.”

And,

I’m confident it’s been addressed and won’t be an issue that you’ll have to encounter going forward.

I had less confidence than this Imperfect employee, but still hoped…

My Last Box from Imperfect Foods:

March 24, I received my last order from Imperfect Foods. I won’t be ordering any more. To be fair, making that large order did help, for some of the produce. I received two boxes this time–one with produce by itself, and one with intermingled raw meat, veggies and fruit. Eww.

Again, there was no bag, no separation between meat and produce, and none of the meat was sitting on ice. Everything in this box was wet, from the condensation of thawing raw meat. Yummy, right? Don’t you just want to pick up that pear and eat it?

The Next Emails I Got Didn’t Seem as Apologetic…

In fact, I was treated as if I was the issue–complaining about something that isn’t really a problem. Here’s one quote from an email from a Supervisor at Imperfect Foods:

“Imperfect Foods isn’t taking this seriously? We ship to innumerable households and we find few to have issues such as yours.” 

and

“If you are seeking reasonable additional store credits related to your March 24, 2020 order, please indicate which items you would like credited and I will work with you with the understanding that this will be the last time we can offer you credits related to this issue. 

Not, “rest assured, we will be fixing this issue!” Or “Wow, this isn’t acceptable at all, and of course we will provide a refund!” Or “I’m so sorry this has happened to you three times.”

In fact, it doesn’t sound like Imperfect Foods will be changing these policies at all. Once again, an Imperfect employee justified packaging raw meats next to raw produce:

“Factory vacuum sealed meats, hot dogs from your grocery store, as an example, are packaged in a similar manner to the product we ship. These are not the same as grocery apportioned meats wrapped by the store butcher. Two of the chief components to factory vacuum sealing is that the packaging is of a heavier grade, meaning that it is more durable, and it is heat sealed and designed not to leak.”

In other words, they think of their raw chicken, pork chops, ground beef and ground turkey in the same manner they think of hot dogs, which are pre-cooked. And, because the type of packaging is less likely to leak, they consider it safe enough to package next to produce.

Why Raw Meat Packaging Shouldn’t Touch Fresh Produce

First of all, let’s talk about the meat I received. The vacuum sealed pork chops that were in packaging “designed not to leak” did in fact leak red juice all over my white counter when I set them on it. I also noticed, as I defrosted some of the raw ground beef from my freezer, that little bits of raw meat floated in the chilled water.

Bits of raw beef on the outside of packaging that Imperfect Foods packed right next to pears.

It’s only a little bit, but it only takes a tiny bit to contaminate food. We used to package chicken ourselves on our farm. We saw how dirty the whole process is! The person handling the raw meat touches the packaging. There is no way around getting raw meat “juices” and bacteria on the outside of the package. We washed off our packaging, but I still wouldn’t consider it sterile enough to place next to the apples my kids eat for snacks! Eventually, we ended up sending our meats to USDA butchering and packing facilities so that we could sell it at farmer’s markets. Even at these facilities, raw meat touches the outside of the packages. It just happens. Keep this in mind:

“In a report published in 2010 (FSAI), a reported 13.2% of chicken packaging was contaminated with Campylobacter.”

Source: Safefood.edu

Another study, performed more recently, in 2018, found more evidence of bacteria on meat packaging:

“Overall, meat juice was detected on 61% of poultry package surfaces, 34% of shoppers’ hands, 41% of grocery bags, 60% of kitchen surfaces, and 51% of food item surfaces.” 

This is why there are strict rules in place for restaurants and people who work in food service. I copied the following images from a worksheet that was created by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation. The worksheet can be found here.

The worksheet recommends storing raw meats in a separate fridge from ready-to-eat food. I think pears would be in that category, don’t you? Also, there is a top-to-bottom order, with meats always on the bottom.

The Company Hello Fresh follows this rule and places the two packs of meat on the bottom of the box, right on top of an ice pack, and then there is a cardboard barrier. Then, all of the other ingredients are in a paper bag, many sealed in plastic as well, and on top of that cardboard barrier.

The Imperfect Foods boxes I received were layered oddly, with veggies, meat and fruit mixed up all over the box. They didn’t admit to packing it this way, but implied that it probably happened in shipping:

“Please keep in mind that after your box is packed, your box is transported from the pack center to the carrier, who delivers it to you. Your box is never intentionally jostled, but if you have ever watched a commercial carrier, you understand that boxes are not subjected to normal movement when in transit. We do not use dividers or additional cardboard or paper, as that would add to the carbon footprint.”

I just wonder why Hello Fresh, Thrive Market and Azure Standard boxes are not in an equal amount of disarray when they arrive?

Here’s another picture from the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation:

The raw turkey in this picture is above ready-to-eat food. It might be in vacuum sealed packaging, or in a rimmed dish to prevent it from leaking on foods below–but it is still enough to get a restaurant written up by a health inspector.

The CDC has the same guidelines for food safety in a home kitchen:

“Store raw meat on the bottom shelf away from fresh produce and ready-to-eat food.”

The FDA agrees:

“Separate raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs from other foods in your grocery shopping cart, grocery bags, and refrigerator.”

The CDC also mentions guidelines for grocery shopping and keeping raw meats separate from other foods here:

In fact, if you do a Google search for “separate raw meat” and “FDA,” or “CDC,” you will find a plethora of information. I could keep quoting!

I did’t see any disclaimers from either the FDA or CDC, saying “unless the meat is in vacuum sealed packages.”

Why Meat Should Be Shipped On Ice

I think we all know that meat should be refrigerated. Even if the meat is originally frozen when shipped, it should be defrosted properly, on ice. Imperfect Foods told me that indeed, the meat does leave their warehouse frozen. Let’s look at the timeline of my last box:

It left the FedEx facility at 6:31 PM on March 23, 2020 and arrived at my home at 10:27 AM on March 24, completely defrosted. If the meat left the Imperfect warehouse frozen, as two employees assured me, then the meat wasn’t kept cold enough in the box and defrosted too quickly. If kept at refrigerated temperatures, raw, ground meats should take around 24 hours to defrost. Bigger cuts of meat should take between 24 and 48 hours to defrost. (source) This meat was traveling for 14 hours and was totally defrosted.

The CDC has an article called Tips for Meal Kit and Food Delivery Safety. In that article, they mention the importance of separating raw meat from other foods, as well as this quote:

“Perishable food should arrive frozen, partially frozen with ice crystals still visible, or at least as cold as it would be in a refrigerator.”

My meats from Imperfect Foods did not come partially frozen. It wasn’t as cold as it would be in a refrigerator.

In fact, most of the meat I received from Imperfect Foods was nowhere near the ice pack. Also, note that Hello Fresh sends the same size ice gel pack for two packages of meat (4 chicken breasts, for example) as Imperfect Foods sent with several packages of meat.

Since my meats came completely defrosted, I think it’s important to remember safe thawing guidelines by the FDA:

“Because bacteria can multiply so rapidly in unrefrigerated food, it’s simply unsafe to let food thaw at room temperature. If left unrefrigerated, some organisms can create toxins that will survive the cooking process even if the food is cooked to temperatures that kill the bacteria themselves. There are three ways to thaw safely: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in the microwave. If you thaw food in cold water, change the water every half hour to make sure it stays cold. Foods thawed in the microwave must be cooked immediately after thawing.”

The meat wasn’t sitting on ice, so it wasn’t thawing in any method equivalent to those listed by the FDA.

Forgetting Their Mission Statement, And Their Customer?

According to their website, Imperfect Food’s Mission statement is:

“Eliminate food waste and build a better food system for everyone.

If food can be saved, we will save it. With every bite into a misshapen apple, short piece of pasta, or oversized egg we can shape our world for the better. We’re hungry for change and eager to reduce waste on the farm, at the store, and in the home.

We are Imperfect Foods. We’re proud to deliver groceries on a mission.”

But sadly, food is wasted when it hasn’t been handled properly and cannot be safely consumed. I’ve thrown away meat, vegetables and fruit from Imperfect Foods because I didn’t think it was safe to eat.

The FDA says that food waste occurs both in the food industry and by consumers.

“…food waste by consumers may often result from fears about food safety caused by misunderstanding of what food product dating actually means, along with uncertainty about storage of perishable foods.

Possibly, the consumers are uncertain about how safely the perishable foods that were shipped to them were stored.

The Imperfect Foods supervisor shared a different mission statement:

“We hope you understand that our mission is to create a small environmental footprint by utilizing a minimal amount of materials, while bringing safe foods to America’s table!” 

I think it’s really important that company employees are aware of and upholding their business’ main goal. What is Imperfect Foods’ number one goal? Is it to:

  1. “Eliminate food waste and build a better system for everyone.” OR
  2. “Create a small environmental footprint by utilizing a minimal amount of materials, while bringing safe foods to America’s table!”?

I’m confused now, because I am not sure they’re succeeding in the first mission statement by claiming the second. And, if “minimal amount of materials” comes before “safe foods” in their priorities, then there’s a problem.

Maybe It’s Better In Other Areas?

Perhaps the issues I have faced are only issues in my area. Maybe west-coasters are still receiving the great quality, safely packed boxes like I got in Oregon. I hope so!! I really do hope that this is a local issue that can be solved.

I was thinking, this may be simply one of the glitches that come along with scaling a business. Imperfect Foods expanded to the east coast in 2018, I think. Fairly recently. Obviously, the people in charge can’t be everywhere–so they’ve got to hire employees to take charge in their distant locations. I hope this is just one of the kinks that comes with expansion, and that they’ll work this out and make necessary changes.

I Quit Today

I replied to the email offering me store credits, and instead, asked for a refund for the box that contained meat and produce. I didn’t ask for a refund for the other box that only contained produce. I mentioned that I don’t think Imperfect Foods is a good fit for my family, because I am concerned about the safety of the food. I didn’t get a response yet, but I saw online that they put my account “On Hold.”

What About Ordering Produce & Not the Meat?

At first, I considered ordering produce and avoiding the more-risky proteins. I’m concerned about the company’s overall views of food safety. If they are repeatedly putting raw meat in with my vegetables and don’t see a problem with it, how can I trust them to handle food safely? Meat and veggies were layered in my box like a lasagna. I wouldn’t want an employee to touch someone else’s raw meat and then pack my box with lettuce and apples and send it to me. There’s no way to know. And, since they don’t seem to believe that meat packaging is dirty, I can’t trust that this kind of carelessness or contamination won’t happen.

I Asked About This on Social Media

Since the Imperfect Foods supervisor said that they have few people who have issues such as mine, I started to wonder if I’m the only one who thinks this is wrong. I assumed I had at least one friend who would agree with me–she’s got a Master’s in Biology and has been posting “Germaphobe” tips on Facebook because of the Coronavirus. I thought for sure, she’d be in my boat here! I wondered, though, would there be others? I will share some screenshots (with identities blacked out to protect my friends and Facebook followers):

I was glad to know I wasn’t alone, and knew I couldn’t just let this issue go, for the sake of others.

My Purpose in Sharing This

Like I mentioned above, I really enjoyed Imperfect Produce when we lived in Oregon. I was a dedicated customer and spent quite a bit of money with them. I’m super sad–not just disappointed–sad that they don’t seem to get that this is an issue. I’m sad about how they’re handling me, a loyal customer. I tried emailing multiple times, asking them to alter their practices, and got some disappointing responses (as I shared above). Their emails didn’t speak of plans to change, or that they recognized that my concerns were valid. So, I share this to:

  • Bring about change. I really hope that they see the comments of other people and know that I’m not the only one upset by this. I do hope that they read this and change their practices. They have the potential to be a great business & serve a lot of people! I really want them to do it safely.
  • Keep people from getting sick. There is already too much sickness going on in our world today!!! Many people are turning to food delivery services like Imperfect in order to get groceries, safely, into their homes. But–the way my food was packaged was not safe. The last thing we need right now is to have people getting food borne illnesses and Coronavirus! Yikes.

Update, A Response From Imperfect Foods 3/31/2020

Imperfect Foods emailed me back today. They are refunding the money I spent on the box full of meat plus produce, but they are refusing to serve me any longer. First, the email from the supervisor said:

“I am so sorry that your meats, in spite of being in the keep cold insulated full wrap bag did not perform to your standards.

But to clarify, the meat was not in a bag–there was no bag present in any of my orders. What they probably meant was that there was insulation around the perimeter of the inside of the box (in this specific order–not in all of my orders).

“Did not perform to your standards,” again, sounds as though I am the one with unattainable standards and the problem here. There is no actual apology for their company doing anything wrong here–just an apology that their company doesn’t meet my standards. So odd!

“We are no longer able to solve your complaints using a financial approach. I’ve noticed you’ve contacted us with a number of similar complaints recently, and it’s evident that we’re not currently in a place to meet the standards you require.”

Again, what a strange response when food safety is the matter at hand! Yes, I do require my food to be packaged and shipped safely. Yes, I do want meat to be kept at cold temperatures and to be separated from fresh, ready-to-eat foods. Is that really unreasonable?

“Based on the patterns observed in your recent account history, it does not look like we are a good service for you. Since it is clear that we currently do not have a feasible solution for you that aligns with our business model, I have canceled your subscription with us.”

Keeping raw meat on ice and away from fresh produce does not align with their business model? Yikes! That’s all I was asking for. I’m okay with my subscription being cancelled, if they can’t find a feasible solution to keep food safe. What a big bummer!

They ended the email with:

“I’m sorry that we couldn’t come to a solution that worked for both of us and we’ve truly appreciated your support in helping us fighting food waste.”

I am really baffled by this, truly! They’re a food delivery company and food can make people sick if mishandled. These aren’t minor complaints, and I’m not being ultra picky about something little. This is a big deal.

The last part really gets me, “helping us fight food waste,” because I’m thinking about the pounds of raw meat and produce I have thrown into the garbage after receiving their deliveries, because it didn’t seem safe enough to eat.

Again, I’m sad to lose this service. I’m sad that they’ve ended my customer relationship with them on such a bitter note.

What Do You Think About This?

I would love to hear your thoughts! Would you be okay with raw meats arriving in a package next to carrots, apples, celery and lettuce? Share your thoughts below.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Lesley March 31, 2020 at 8:25 am

That’s awful. I dont blame you for cancelling. I am in Oregon and have been receiving boxes for a couple of months now. The meat is always in an insulated bag with an ice pack.

Reply

brenda March 31, 2020 at 4:21 pm

Lesley, that’s great!! This is really a simple fix. I just wish the company policies were the same all over the country. I’m so glad you are having a good experience with them!

Reply

Hal May 17, 2020 at 7:24 pm

I also live in Oregon but had the same issue of meat not being in a bag. The salmon trimmings in my box were mixed in with the veggies and at 45 degrees F after being in a FedEx truck for 24 hours. I’m a food safety fanatic, so I emailed them as soon as I read your article. Makes me wonder if the impact of the virus is causing their quality of service to drop, but even then that’s not an excuse.

Reply

Jennifer April 21, 2020 at 8:48 pm

I’m in Washington state and have just had the same packing issue with my latest box, my third, and the first onw of the three to contain raw meat. My ground turkey leaked too, all over the produce. I completely agree with everything you said and I told them as much via email tonight. I’m cancelling regardless, but we’ll see what they have to say. After 20 years of receiving grocery deliveries in one form or another, I have never once experienced lazy and negligent packing like this. It’s complewly unacceptable. I’m shocked disappointed and livid all at the same time. I also can’t believe the responses they gave you. Those were completely unacceptable too.

Reply

Cherie Gauthier May 21, 2020 at 9:29 am

I’m so glad I found your article. On a friends recommendation, we tried Imperfect Foods. Our first box was only produce but it was a horrible mess. Warm food, with squished tomatoes and blueberries. The touch and smell were gross and we’ve fought fruit flies for a week. Their response was reasonable so I tried again. The meat did arrive in a separate insulated bag but the packaging was horrible, with heavy foods on the top, “layered like a bad lasagna.” Your point about food safety in the warehouse has me questioning all of their practices and I’ve put my account “on hold”. Probably for good.

Reply

Allison May 22, 2020 at 3:40 pm

I’m having the same problem. We’re going to try one more time with the request that the meat at least be placed in a separate box or a bag so it isn’t next to produce. But it’s just two of us and I’m only ordering about 6 or six things total and it comes in a huge insulated box with one ice pack which is generally thawed (the last one was leaking) and all this food being tumbled around. I’ve also written when they’ve asked for feedback and I clearly state that I don’t want a refund, I just want to inform them and ask for a smaller box with the hopes there will be less damage to produce and less air space for thawing also. They just give me refunds anyway. *sigh* This week, we’re getting some grass-fed lamb which we’ll cook up right away and some veggies that can be washed. I will have to cancel after this order especially with the weather getting warmer and FED Ex not delivering from refrigerated trucks. Problem for us is, we live in a very small town where we can’t get grass-fed meat. We can’t afford (or store) 1/4 of a cow from a local ranch or other online options. This is a great option if they’d only package the items properly.

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