Sending Food as a Gift? How to Keep It Safe

December 22, 2016
Nirav Shah, MBA, MPH

Nirav Shah, MBA, MPH, is a member of the Food Safety Education Staff at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Sending food through the mail is a popular gift-giving tradition. Whether you are ordering specialty meat from a company or receiving homemade sausage from a favorite relative, you need to be aware of the risks of contracting a foodborne illness if perishable foods are not properly handled, prepared, and stored. share on twitter This is especially true for people with cancer, who are at higher risk for food poisoning.

If you are ordering a perishable food product from a mail-order company, be sure:

  • The company sends perishable items, like meat and poultry, cold or frozen and packed with a cold source. The preferred cold source is dry ice.

  • The food is packaged in a foam or heavy, corrugated cardboard container.

  • The food is delivered as quickly as possible – ideally, overnight.

Miniature Deep-Freeze Packaging: A corrugated double-strength box, placed on top of plenty of wrapped dry ice, packed in a reusable insulated cooler with a lid, with 2.75 mils-thick polyethylene film used as a final layer of insulation and protective shrink wrapIf you are packaging food yourself to send as a gift through the mail, make sure to use the “miniature deep-freeze” packaging method. In addition to the food you are sending, you will need an insulated cooler, plenty of wrapped dry ice, a corrugated box to fit the food, and polyethylene film (plastic sheeting). Once you are ready to send the package, put it together as shown in the image.

Everyone likes to surprise their loved ones with gifts during the holidays, but it’s best not to surprise them with a gift of food sent through the mail. You want to make sure that your recipient knows that the gift is coming and that they should be ready to receive it and immediately put it in the refrigerator.

Also, let the gift recipient know how to check the package to ensure that the food stayed at a safe temperature while in transit. The food should arrive frozen or partially frozen with ice crystals still visible or at least refrigerator cold, below 40°F (4.5°C) as measured by a food thermometer. Even if the food is smoked, cured, vacuum-packed, and/or fully cooked, it is still perishable and must be kept cold.

If food arrives above 40°F (4.5°C), throw it out. Perishable food held between 40 and 140°F (4.5 and 60°C) can rapidly grow bacteria. You may not be able to taste, smell, or see the bacteria, so you cannot be sure if the food has become unsafe to eat. The safest choice is to throw out the food without tasting it.

Proper handling is essential to make sure food is safe to eat. 

What you can do

Learn about safety tips for those at increased risk of foodborne illness. Those living with cancer should always follow these 4 steps:

  1. Clean: Wash hands and surfaces often

  2. Separate: Keep raw meat and poultry away from ready-to-eat foods

  3. Cook: Cook foods to the right temperatures

  4. Chill: Promptly chill raw meat and poultry as well as cooked leftovers (within 2 hours)

By following these tips for safely sending food this holiday season, you can be sure you are giving the gift of holiday cheer and not holiday food poisoning.

Need help?

If you have questions about storage times of food or beverages, download the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) FoodKeeper application for Android and iOS devices. Follow the USDA Food Safety Inspection Services (FSIS) on Twitter in English and Spanish.

If you have any questions or would like to order some of USDA’s educational materials, call the USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHOTLINE (1-888-674-6854) or email mphotline.fsis@usda.gov. You can also chat live with a USDA food safety specialist at AskUSDA, available from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday, in English or Spanish.

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