By Drusilla Banks
The mail-order industry has shown tremendous growth in the last five years. Today, you can order anything from home furnishings to a fully prepared meal. “Mail order” generally refers to companies that primarily use mail catalogs to display and sell merchandise. However, online purchases have all but put some traditional companies out of business.
Mail-order industry revenue has grown at an annual rate of about three percent and has evolved into a $167.9 billion industry. To compete with other slowing industry revenue and the increasing demand for online retailers, many companies have begun to offer web and mobile e-commerce services.
While the mail-order and online industry enjoys a good safety record, ordering food through these sources may cause concerns about food safety and shelf life. It is imperative to develop some mental checklists for how both food and packaging should look when perishable orders arrive.
This is especially true for meat, poultry, fish and other perishable foods such as cheesecake and dairy. These foods must be carefully handled in a timely manner to ensure freshness, quality and to prevent foodborne illness.
The USDA offers the following food safety tips. This information will help both the purchaser and recipient to evaluate properly handled perishable foods.
- Make sure perishable items, like meat or poultry, cold or frozen, arrive packed with a cold source such as frozen gel packs or dry ice.
- Pay attention to the packaging. The best types are foam or heavy corrugated cardboard. It should not show signs of damage or tampering.
- 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.
- Smoked, cured, vacuum-packed and/or fully cooked, foods are still perishable and must be kept cold. If perishable foods arrive warm—above 40 °F as measured with a food thermometer—notify the company.
- Do not consume the food if it is not cold. Do not even taste suspect food. Tell the recipient if the company has promised a delivery date. Alternatively, alert the recipient that “the gift is in the mail” so someone can be there to receive it.
- Do not have perishable items delivered to an office unless you know it will arrive on a workday and there is refrigerator space available for keeping it cold.
Americans also enjoy cooking foods that are family favorites and mailing these items to family and friends. The same rules apply to foods prepared and mailed from home. Make sure perishable foods are not held at temperatures between 40 and 140 °F, the “Danger Zone,” for longer than two hours.
Pathogenic (illness causing) bacteria can grow rapidly in the “Danger Zone.” Their presence may not affect the taste, smell or appearance of a food. In other words, you cannot tell that a food has been mishandled or is unsafe to eat. Never taste suspect foods.
Whenever possible, send foods that do not require refrigeration, e.g., hard salami, hard cheese, country ham. Shelf-stable gifts can tolerate a wide range of temperatures for several days. Consider these types of gifts especially when shipping to family members or friends overseas or in the military.
Giving food donations
Giving gifts of food also prompts us to remember those less fortunate. Organizations sponsor food drives collecting non-perishable food at grocery stores, school and many other locations. Always give foods that are newly purchased. Do not pull out old can goods from your pantry. Some may appreciate gifts of time and money donations as well.
Prepared by Drusilla Banks, Extension Educator, Nutrition and Wellness; University of Illinois Extension in Bourbonnais, IL.