Plan carefully when mailing perishable food gifts

The appearance of food received in the mail may not be an indication of whether it was handled safely during its travels.

Americans enjoy cooking foods that are family favorites and sending these items to family and friends who are away from home whether in the military or living in a distant city. The same rules that apply to commercial companies mailing food also apply to foods prepared and sent from the home kitchen.

If the food being mailed is perishable it should not be held at temperatures between 40 and 140° F for longer than 2 hours. Bacteria can grow rapidly at these temperatures and while these bacteria may not affect the taste, smell, or appearance of the food, they can still cause foodborne illness. In other words, you may not be able tell that a food has been mishandled or is unsafe to eat by its appearance.

For perishable foods prepared at home and mailed, follow these guidelines:

  • Ship in a sturdy box.
  • Pack with a cold source like one or more frozen gel packs or dry ice can be used if it is handled carefully (not with bare hands) and does not come in direct contact with the food. 
  • Wrap the box with an extra layer or two of brown paper.
  • Use a permanent marker to label the outside of the box.
  • Label the box clearly making sure the address is correct and complete to prevent delays in delivery.
  • Write "Keep Refrigerated" on the outside of the box.
  • Alert the recipients of its expected arrival so that they can make arrangements for receiving it and refrigerating it promptly.
  • Do not send packages to business addresses or where there will not be adequate refrigerator storage.
  • Do not send packages at the end of the week. Send them at the beginning of the week so that they do not sit in the post office or mailing facility over the weekend.
  • Check the temperature of the food upon its arrival at its destination with a food thermometer.
  • Whenever possible choose foods to send that do not require refrigeration.

Your friends and loved ones who are far away will enjoy the gift more if it does not put them at risk of contracting a foodborne illness. For more information about sending foods through the mail check with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Meat and Poultry Hotline.

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