Your Mail-Order Food Safety Manual
Friends and loved ones who live far from home — such as college students or those serving in the military — always enjoy receiving care packages that often include home-cooked meals or other prepared foods.
Whether you are sending a package for the holidays, commemorating a special occasion or just showing that you care, keep food safety in mind with homemade food gifts.
Why is this an issue? Foodborne pathogens grow faster between 40°F and 140°F, potentially doubling every 20 minutes in what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls the danger zone. So take extra precaution to ensure recipients of mail-order food feel the love when they receive your package, not the effects of food poisoning.
Keep It Cool
Perishable foods should be kept at or below 40°F — or better yet, frozen — during shipping.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service recommends using a cold source such as dry ice and packing in foam or heavy corrugated cardboard. Even if the product is smoked, cured or fully cooked (for example, smoked fish) it is still unpreserved and must be kept cold.
Send Non-Perishable Foods
Non-refrigerated foods stay fresher longer and are safe at room temperature, so they make great homemade food gifts and lower the risk of causing food poisoning. Some examples include:
- Dried beef, fruits, canned nuts, dehydrated soups and fruit drink mixes.
- Canned meat and fish specialties along with dips and cracker spreads. Remember, any cans that appear to be damaged or swollen should be tossed.
- Dense and dry baked goods such as fruitcakes and biscotti.
- Hard candies and homemade sweets such as pralines and toffee are safe to send through regular mail because their high sugar content prevents bacterial growth.
- Sugar cookies or homemade candies should be wrapped individually and packed in foam packing peanuts to cushion during the trip.
- Condiments including hot sauce, Cajun seasonings in packets, unbreakable jars, corned beef, shelf-stable hams, anchovies and shrimp dips also are safe for mailing. But avoid sending breakable glass containers.
- Commercially packaged cakes, cookies and crackers are safe to mail, but should be shipped in airtight tins.
While you don't need to worry about the temperature of non-refrigerated foods, you should protect the original packaging. Sturdy packaging helps keep it undamaged for the bumpy ride ahead.
Inspect Upon Arrival
When you receive your shipment, immediately open any package containing a food item marked "Keep Refrigerated" to check its temperature. Perishable food should arrive frozen or at least partially frozen. You should still be able to see little ice crystals.
Use a food thermometer to test the item when it arrives. If it's above 40°F, immediately notify the shipping company and do not eat the food.
Whether you're shipping the food item to a home, dorm or workplace, alert the recipient that a gift is in the mail so somebody can receive it. Don't deliver it to an office unless it will arrive on a work day and your recipient has access to refrigerator space.
For more information about the safety of mail-order foods, download the "Safe Handling of Mail-Order Foods" chart from the FSIS. And if you're ever in doubt, the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline is open year-round.