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Video: Is your child’s bagged lunch carrying disease?

  1. Transcript of: Is your child’s bagged lunch carrying disease?

    ANN CURRY, co-host: Back now at 7:41 with food for thought as you begin to prepare another year of packing your kids' school lunches. According to a new study, many of those bagged or boxed meals are being kept in unsafe temperatures. Here with details now, we go to NBC 's chief medical editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman and also we have nutritionist Ellie Krieger . She's the author of the book " So Easy ." Let's try to hope that this will be easy this morning. Good both -- good morning to both of you.

    Dr. NANCY SNYDERMAN reporting: Hi, Annie.

    Ms. ELLIE KRIEGER (Author, "So Easy"): Good morning.

    CURRY: This new study looked at more than 700 preschoolers' lunch boxes and the results were significant.

    SNYDERMAN: Yeah. University of Texas published in the journal Pediatrics and it found that 99 percent of the school lunches in a certain preschool group they looked at, were -- the food was kept at unsafe temperatures. And the reason that's important is that when your lunch is refrigerated, bacteria are sort of held in suspended animation. And when they get warm and moist enough, the bacteria can grow. And the concern is the kids will come home with vomiting and diarrhea. You think it's an infection, it may just be food poisoning that believe it or not started at home.

    CURRY: My goodness. So what is the temperature we should aspire to? Is it always refrigerated?

    SNYDERMAN: So less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit . And if you're going to have hot foods, it should be higher than 140 degrees. And any food kept in that no man's zone between those two should only be left out for two hours, not more.

    CURRY: Hm. OK, now, some people will pack ice packs with their food.

    SNYDERMAN: Mm-hmm.

    CURRY: Sometimes -- some people will even freeze water bottles.

    SNYDERMAN: And in this study, even ice packs didn't make a difference.

    Ms. KRIEGER: Forty percent of the people in this study packed ice packs , so most of the people didn't.

    SNYDERMAN: Right. So if you're going to do it, at least pack more than one ice pack . But we were talking before, really, you need refrigerators.

    Ms. KRIEGER: Yes.

    SNYDERMAN: Or big coolers and we need to start thinking about refrigeration in a way that we haven't before in our preschools and kindergartens.

    CURRY: But bottom -- but bottom line with the number of kids in school , the chance of sort of depending on a refrigerator for your kids' lunch is pretty much -- pretty much a bad decision.

    SNYDERMAN: Right.

    Ms. KRIEGER: It needs to happen, though. They need to -- I think school administrators need to be aware that these things need to be refrigerated. Even getting a cooler and putting -- making an ice cooler, that would help. It doesn't require a lot of cost. So that's really important. I think, an important part of this.

    SNYDERMAN: OK. But you can't have a cooler, obviously.

    Ms. KRIEGER: Right.

    SNYDERMAN: You have to think about it . Oh, OK. What can you go to school with that's not going to perish and that's what we really have out.

    Ms. KRIEGER: Right.

    CURRY: OK. Well, show us, Ellie . What are some options we can think about?

    Ms. KRIEGER: OK. And there are really more options than you think.

    CURRY: Oh good.

    Ms. KRIEGER: So that's the good news.

    CURRY: I love that.

    Aseptic Packaged Milk Whole Grain Cereal

    Ms. KRIEGER: So I'm going to make it easy. So basically, before you cut or peel a vegetable or a fruit, they're pretty much safe at room temperature at least for sure from the time you pack the lunch until lunchtime. So I love things like, in this lunch here I have snap peas, sugar snap peas. You can wash them, but they don't have to be peeled or cut. The same thing with whole fruits, a whole apple. Also, dried fruits , for example. So dried fruits , dried vegetables. Now they have dehydrated vegetables and so on in a lot of health food stores. Also, nuts. You want to check, of course, with your school . A lot of times they don't allow peanuts, but a lot of times they will allow certain tree nuts, but do check. Also, antiseptic -- aseptic packaged milks.

    CURRY: Hm.


    Ms. KRIEGER: So they're going to safe at shelf temperature. You want to cool them just for taste and keep them in a cooler pack, absolutely. But I love something like this. Like you can have cereal with milk for lunch.

    CURRY: Mm-hmm.

    SNYDERMAN: I think one thing is you look at everything here. There are basic whole foods or prepackaged foods. What I don't want parents to do is go out and get these prepackaged lunches that are just filled with fats and bad foods and a lot of preservatives. So start to think about the basics of foods. What you and I would take perhaps on a hiking trip.

    CURRY: That's right .

    Ms. KRIEGER: Exactly.

    CURRY: But you're also making the point that you cut up the fruit or you cut up the vegetables or whatever, you're actually going to introduce a certain amount of bacteria.

    Ms. KRIEGER: Right. Exactly.

    CURRY: That without refrigeration is a problem. Let's get a...

    Ms. KRIEGER: And that's a big point, actually. So at home, a lot of bacterial contamination starts at home.

    CURRY: Hm.

    Ms. KRIEGER: So when you're preparing a lunch, really start right there. Clean hands, clean surfaces. So you're making, say, an almond butter sandwich here. Make sure you're work -- doing that on clean surfaces and that's really, really important. And that will keep it safe at room temperature . Again, there's a soy milk that's in the aseptic packaging. Cherry tomatoes or grape tomatoes are my daughter's favorite and they certainly stay well at room temperature . Apple sauce, banana. Here, more dried fruit . And also these hard cheeses. So cheddar cheese, Colby Jack . If they're in prepackaged, individual wraps, they will be safe at room temperature .

    CURRY: Sandwiches with mayonnaise?

    SNYDERMAN: No. Skip it .

    CURRY: No more.

    SNYDERMAN: No. Dry sandwiches.

    CURRY: Over.

    Ms. KRIEGER: Or maybe -- unless you know for sure that you can have a lot of -- this is actually all freezer packs in this particular one.

    SNYDERMAN: But I think with the data that came out this last week, only 1 percent of school lunches being at the right temperature, play it safe.

    Ms. KRIEGER: Yes.

    CURRY: All right.

    SNYDERMAN: Keep your mayonnaise for at home on the weekends.

    Ms. KRIEGER: Or with you.

    CURRY: Good advice. Dr. Nancy Snyderman and Ellie Krieger , trying to help our kids. Thank you so much this morning.

    Ms. KRIEGER: Thank you.

msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/8/2011 8:24:33 AM ET 2011-08-08T12:24:33

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.

Robert Byron  /  FeaturePics.com stock
Even some lunches that were kept in daycare refrigerators tended to reach temperatures considered unsafe, a new study found.

The results simply show that how parents pack their kids’ lunches could inadvertently lead to foodborne illness, Fawaz Almansour and his colleagues concluded.

Discuss on TODAY Moms: When did school lunches get so complicated?

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.”

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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.”

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