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Mail Order Madness: Sending and Receiving Those Food Gifts

It seems like the holidays come earlier every year. One way to reduce the stress of gift giving is to shop online or from catalogs. Food gifts are extremely popular because the recipient gets to enjoy the gift twice – first as a lovely gift, and second by serving and sharing it with family and friends.

The following food safety tips will help the purchaser and recipient determine if perishable foods they receive in the mail have been handled properly:

  • When placing your order, make sure the company sends perishable items, such as meat or poultry, cold or frozen and packed with a cold source. It should be packed in foam or heavy corrugated cardboard.
  • The food should be delivered as quickly as possible — ideally, overnight. Make sure perishable items and the outer package are labeled “Keep Refrigerated” to alert the recipient.
  • When you receive 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 or at least refrigerator cold—below 40 °F as measured with a food thermometer. Even if a product is smoked, cured, vacuum-packed, and/or fully cooked, it still is a perishable product and must be kept cold.
  • Tell the recipient if the company has promised a delivery date, or alert the recipient that “the gift is in the mail” so someone can be there 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.
  • If perishable food arrives warm — above 40 °F as measured with a food thermometer you should not use it. Do not consume the food. Do not even taste suspect food. Contact the company and report that the gift was received in an unsafe condition and ask for a replacement. Make sure that they will ship the replacement with an adequate cold source. If the company will not cooperate, contact the Direct Marketing Association (DMA). They offer a free consumer service and act as an intermediary between consumers and direct marketing companies to resolve complaints on a timely basis. Consumers may register complaints with DMA via e-mail to; phone calls are not accepted.

If you are mailing homemade perishable food gifts, follow these guidelines:

  • Wrap the food well, then place in a sturdy box for shipping.
  • Pack with a cold source, i.e., frozen gel packs or dry ice.
  • Dry ice will keep cold foods cold longer than gel packs. When using dry ice:
    • Don’t touch the dry ice with bare hands.
    • Don’t let it come in direct contact with food.
    • Warn the recipient of its use by writing “Contains Dry Ice” on the outside of the box.
  • Wrap box in two layers of brown paper.
  • Use permanent markers to label the outside of the box. Use recommended packing tape.
  • Label the package clearly; make sure the address is complete and correct.
  • Write “Keep Refrigerated” on outside of the box.
  • Alert recipient of its expected arrival.
  • Do not ship 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 they do not sit in the post office or mailing facility over the weekend.
  • Whenever possible, send foods that do not require refrigeration, e.g., hard salami, hard cheese, country ham, baked goods.

For more information, including a diagram of how to pack perishable food items, visit Mail Order Food Safety. Consumers with food safety questions can call USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-674-6854 or online at Ask Karen.

Ask Karen, the virtual food safety representative, is available 24/7 at 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 On Thanksgiving Day, the Hotline is open from 8:00 am to 2:00 pm Eastern Time.

One Response to “Mail Order Madness: Sending and Receiving Those Food Gifts”

  1. Bobbie Jo Henry says:

    Thank you for this timely article. I posted it in my workplace coffee room.

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