Being home for the holidays will not be possible this year for many American armed forces. The next best thing may be receiving greetings and gifts of food items. Many foods are safe to mail. However, you must have the name and address of a military person stationed overseas. Because of security risks, the U.S. Postal Service will not deliver mail addressed to “Any Serviceman.”
It’s important to mail food gifts that are not perishable, can tolerate a range of temperatures, and won’t break with rough handling. Food gifts that can be safely mailed include dried products such as jerky and fruits, shelf stable canned specialties, and regional condiments such as hot sauces. Homemade cookies, candy, and low-moisture breads and bar cookies are also good candidates for mailing.
Perishable foods are not safe to mail. These include foods that must be kept refrigerated (at 40 °F or below) to remain safe — meat, poultry, fish, and soft cheeses, for example. These foods cannot be safely left at room temperature for more than 2 hours, much less for a week or more in the mail. Foodborne bacteria that may be present on these foods grow fastest at temperatures above 40 °F and can double every 20 minutes. When this happens, someone eating the food can get sick.
As an alternative to homemade gifts, some families may wish to send a military member’s favorite mail order foods. Shelf stable “summer sausage,” cheeses, cakes, and snacks can be ordered on the Internet or through mail order catalogues. Because of the delivery time and distances between the U.S. and duty stations overseas, do not order any food gifts that must be kept refrigerated.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Meat and Poultry Hotline offers the following advice concerning food gifts for armed forces serving away from home including those overseas.
RECOMMENDED FOOD GIFTS
- Dried beef or poultry such as beef jerky, turkey jerky, or beef slims are safe to mail. Bacteria can’t grow in dried foods preserved by removing moisture.
- Dehydrated soups and fruit drink mixes are lightweight and safe to mail. Regional condiments such as hot sauce and Cajun seasonings in packets are useful for spicing up Meals Ready to Eat (MRE).
- Canned specialties such as paté, corned beef, shelf-stable hams, anchovies, shrimp, dips and cracker spreads make nice treats. Recipients should be cautioned not to use any cans that are damaged or swollen. Foods in glass containers should not be mailed because they can break.
- 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 and cookies in airtight tins, dry cookies such as ginger snaps, and specialty crackers.
- High-moisture baked goods such as pumpkin bread — while safe at room temperature for a few days — should not be mailed because they will most likely mold before delivery. Fragile foods like delicate cookies won’t make the trip intact. When mailing sturdy cookies and homemade candies, wrap each piece individually and pack items in commercially popped corn or foam to help cushion the trip. Place the food gifts in a sturdy box and seal it securely with packing tape.
- Dried fruits such as raisins and apricots, canned nuts and fruit, and commercially packaged trail mix need no refrigeration.
- Hard candies and sturdy homemade sweets such as fudge, pralines, and toffee are safe to mail because their high sugar content prevents bacterial growth.
Ask Karen, the virtual food safety representative, is available 24/7 at AskKaren.gov. Weekdays between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. ET, the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline is available at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) or via live chat at AskKaren.gov. On Thanksgiving Day, the Hotline is open from 8:00 am to 2:00 pm Eastern Time.