Where Local and Global Appetites Collide

Food Safety Tips for Mailing Holiday Food Gifts

Dec. 6, 2007–The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) knows that many Americans enjoy cooking foods that are family favorites and mailing these food items to family and friends. Others choose to order food from catalogs, over the Internet, or by phone.

So the gift is in the mail, but is it safe?

USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) recommends that consumers take preventative steps to ensure that perishable foods be packaged and shipped to maintain a safe temperature so that mailed food items reach their final destination safe for consumption, whether the items are sent to domestic or foreign addresses.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), perishable food held at unsafe temperatures is one of the top causes of foodborne illness. Foodborne bacteria that may be present on perishable food grow fastest at temperatures between 40 °F and 140 °F, also known as the “Danger Zone,” and those bacteria can double every 20 minutes. Pathogenic bacteria may not affect the taste, smell, or appearance of a food so the recipient may not be able to tell that a food has been mishandled or is unsafe to eat.

Perishable foods, such as meat, poultry, fish and soft cheeses must be kept at or below 40 °F to remain safe. These foods can only be safely held at room temperature for two hours, so tolerating a week or more in the mail without a cold source is unsafe. If these foods aren’t kept cold during delivery, the food may become unsafe and cause foodborne illness when eaten.

The following food safety tips will help the purchaser and recipient determine if their perishable foods ordered on the Internet or by mail order catalog have been handled properly and continue to Be Food Safe:

–Make sure the company sends perishable items, like meat or poultry, cold or frozen and packed with a cold source and in foam or heavy corrugated cardboard. The food should be delivered as quickly as possible — ideally, overnight. Make sure perishable items and the outer shipping package are clearly labeled “Keep Refrigerated” to alert the recipient.
–When receiving a food item marked “Keep Refrigerated,” open it immediately and check its temperature. The food should arrive frozen or partially frozen with ice crystals still visible. Even if a product is smoked, cured and/or fully cooked, it still is a perishable product and must be kept cold. If perishable food arrives warm — above 40 °F as measured with a food thermometer — notify the company. Do not taste or consume the suspect food.
–Tell the recipient if the company has promised a delivery date, or alert the recipient that “the gift is in the mail” so someone is ready to receive it. Don’t have perishable items delivered to an office unless you know it will arrive on a work day and there is refrigerator space available for keeping it cold.
Food safety specialists at USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline offer the following advice for sending non-refrigerated food gifts through the mail:
–Dried food items including beef or poultry products such as jerky, dried fruits, canned nuts, dehydrated soups or drink mixes, and commercially packaged trail mix are safe to mail. Bacteria can’t grow in foods preserved by removing moisture.
–Canned meat and fish specialties, dips and cracker spreads also make nice treats. Recipients should be cautioned not to use any cans that appear to be damaged or swollen.
–Condiments such as hot sauce and Cajun seasonings in packets or unbreakable jars are great gifts for aspiring chefs and spice lovers. Foods should not be mailed in glass containers because they can break during delivery.
–Dense and dry baked goods such as fruit cakes and biscotti are good choices for mailing because they will not mold. Other suitable baked goods include commercially packaged cakes, cookies and crackers shipped in airtight tins.
–When mailing baked goods like sugar cookies or homemade candies, wrap each piece individually and pack items in Styrofoam packing peanuts or foam to help cushion food during the trip. Place the food gifts in a sturdy box and seal it securely with packing tape.
–Hard candies and homemade sweets such as pralines and toffee are safe to mail because their high sugar content prevents bacterial growth.

As an alternative to homemade gifts, some families may wish to send mail order foods. Shelf stable beef “summer sausages,” cheeses, cakes and other snacks can be ordered on the Internet or through mail order catalogs.

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