There are often shortcomings in the hygienic quality of ready meals prepared by restaurants and shops.

Room for improvement in ready meals of restaurants and shops

There are often shortcomings in the hygienic quality of ready meals prepared by restaurants and shops, according to a recent study. Package labels were also found lacking.

During the pandemic, many restaurants and shops begun to prepare and package ready meals for retail sale. The food inspectors of Helsinki, Vantaa and Hyvinkää investigated the hygienic quality and labelling of ready meals in a study carried out in 2021.

Cooked ready meals, such as portions of stir-fry, risotto and pasta, lunch/dinner salads and sandwiches, were selected as samples for the study. Of the sampled meals, 46 were prepared and packaged in restaurants and 21 in shops. In total, there were 67 samples.

Based on the characteristics examined, 55% of the samples had no notable deficiencies, 11% were judged as passable and 34% as poor. The poor results were due to high total levels of aerobic micro-organisms and high levels of enterobacteria, which indicate that the product is near the end of its shelf life. Pathogenic bacteria, such as listeria, were not found.

Passable and poor results were obtained particularly in the case of foods prepared by heating. The results may indicate incorrect cooling methods and storage temperatures as well as too long storage times. Some 28% of the samples exceeded the under +6°C sales temperature specified in applicable legislation.

Most of the restaurants and shops producing ready meals for retail sale had not studied the shelf life of their products, which meant that their time to sale was not based on researched information. The time to sale of the meals ranged from two days to as many as ten days. The most typical time to sale was 3–4 days.

The package labels of the sampled meals were also checked. They were deficient in 94% of the products. Only four products were properly labelled. Common shortcomings in the package labels included errors in the list of ingredients, in the highlighting of allergens and in the indication of the name of the producer.

Based on the study, restaurants and shops should carry out shelf-life studies of meals prepared for retail sale in order to determine the time to sale. Clear guidelines at national level would also be useful for producers of ready meals.

Photo: Anni Karreinen