Remember Food Safety When Ordering and Mailing Food Gifts

— Written By N.C. Cooperative Extension

Although this column was originally featured in 2008, I feel it is worth revisiting as it is important to consider food safety even when ordering and mailing food gifts.

This holiday season, you may be considering mail order or homemade foods to send to special people on your gift list. Many foods can be sent safely by taking precautions when ordering and sending.

When ordering a food product, ask if it is shelf-stable (safe at room temperature). If the food is not shelf-stable, it must be shipped cold to be safe. Ask the company how it will keep the product cold during delivery. Also ask for intended shipping and delivery dates. If the package is a gift, let the recipient know to refrigerate contents upon receipt.

Perishable foods. Ship perishable food cold—no warmer than 40 degrees F. Perishable foods include vacuum-packaged smoked fish, turkeys and some sausages, cheeses and some canned hams. Some of these foods can be shipped frozen.

  • If mailing perishable items (foods to be kept cold or frozen), pack with frozen gel packs or dry ice. Do not handle dry ice with your bare hands, and don’t let it come in contact with the food. To insulate, pack the food in foam or corrugated cardboard.
  • Have the food delivered as soon as possible, ideally overnight.
  • Write “Perishable” or “Keep Refrigerated” in marker on the outside of the box.
  • If receiving perishable food, check for any damage to the packaging. Also, inspect the foods for mold before you eat them. Refrigerate after opening.
  • Never send home-processed meat or cheese through the mail. The acidity and moisture content of these products are often unknown and may contain and promote the growth of harmful bacteria.

Commercially prepared nonperishable meats and cheese. Many types of commercially prepared sausage and processed cheese and cheese foods do not need to be shipped cold. These products often contain large amounts of salt and undergo a heat treatment to kill harmful bacteria. Some sausages also contain nitrates, which prevent the growth of the bacteria that cause botulism. Check labels to determine if refrigeration is needed.

Homemade baked goods. Most cookies and candies are safe to ship, except for cheesecake and other foods that contain a custard or cream filling. During transit, the temperature of these fillings may increase significantly, providing an ideal environment for bacterial growth that can spoil the food or make it harmful to eat.

  • Do not pack the food while it is hot so droplets of water do not condense on the inside surface of the package. Moisture promotes soggy goods and mold growth.
  • After cooling, pack the food in plastic bags so air does not get in and cause spoilage.
  • Pack the box so the contents do not shift. Layering will help. Use paper or packing material to fill empty spaces in the box.
  • Soft cookies can crumble and break during shipping. Harder cookies, such as snack or bar cookies ship better.

Most homemade baked goods have a shelf life of one week or less because they do not contain preservatives that prevent mold growth.

Remember food safety when giving those delightful holiday goodies as gifts!

Source:  USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS)

North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Cleveland County Center, for more information on food and nutrition and food safety, contact Nancy Abasiekong by phone: 704-482-4365, by e-mail:, or by mail: 130 South Post Road, Suite 1, Shelby, NC 28152