Perishable Foods – Mail Order Food Safety

mail-order-food-safetyConvenience means many things to many people, but anything that helps save time is always high on everyone’s list of conveniences. With more Americans working and being more time-crunched than ever, the ultimate time saver and convenience is home delivery of mail order foods.

While the mail order industry enjoys a good safety record, ordering food through the mail may cause concerns about food safety, shelf life, and distribution. It’s imperative to develop some mental checklists for how both food and packaging should look when perishable mail order foods arrive. This is especially true for meat, poultry, fish, and other perishable foods such as cheesecake, which must be carefully handled in a timely manner to prevent foodborne illness.

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

  • Make sure the company sends perishable items, like 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. If perishable food arrives warm—above 40 °F as measured with a food thermometer—notify the company. Do not consume the food. Do not even taste suspect food.
  • 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.

Americans also enjoy cooking foods that are family favorites and mailing these items to family and friends. The same rules that cover the mail order industry also 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 2 hours. Pathogenic bacteria can grow rapidly in the “Danger Zone”, but they 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.

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

  • Ship in a sturdy box.
  • Pack with a cold source, i.e., frozen gel packs or dry ice.
  • 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 outside of the box. Use recommended packing tape.
  • Label outside clearly; make sure address is complete and correct.
  • Write “Keep Refrigerated” on outside of the box.
  • Alert recipient of its expected arrival.
  • Do not send 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.


Use the handy chart, compiled by the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline and FDA Outreach and Information Center, to plan your purchase, send a home-prepared item, and store popular mail order foods.

If mail order foods arrive in a questionable condition, you may contact the following organizations for help:

  • USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline 1-888-MPHotline, weekdays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. ET (1-888-674-6854)
    (meat, poultry, and egg products)
  • FDA Outreach and Information Center 1 (888) 723-3366 weekdays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. ET
    (any foods other than meat, poultry, and egg products)
  • Direct Marketing Association, Consumer Affairs Department, 1615 L Street NW, Suite 1100, Washington, DC 20036

    Direct Marketing Association (DMA) offers a free consumer service and acts as an intermediary between consumers and direct marketing companies to resolve complaints on a timely basis. Consumers may register complaints with DMA by writing to the above address or e-mailing to; phone calls are not accepted.

    Consumers requesting assistance through DMA should include the complete name and address of the company involved in the complaint, photocopies (not originals) of any canceled checks, order forms, other relevant documents, and a letter summarizing the facts of the complaint.

    DMA will refer the letter to the company on the consumer’s behalf and ask that the company resolve the matter. The majority of DMA complaints are resolved successfully within a 30-day period.

Safe Handling of Mail Order Foods

These short but safe time limits will help keep refrigerated foods from spoiling or becoming unsafe to eat. Because freezing keeps food safe indefinitely, recommended storage times are for quality only.

N/A – not advisable

Safe Handling of Mail Order Foods
Condition Upon ArrivalSTORAGE
Refrigerator 40 °F
Freezer 0°F
Beef and Lamb; steaks and roastsFrozen or refrigerator coldN/A3-5 days1 year
Game BirdsFrozen or refrigerator coldN/A1-2 days1 year
Pork, chops, and roastsFrozen or refrigerator coldN/A3-5 days6 months
Turkey—smoked, cookedFrozen or refrigerator coldN/A7 days6 months
Turkey—whole, uncookedFrozen or refrigerator coldN/A1-2 days1 year
Ham—countryRoom temperature1 yearSliced, 2-3 months1 month
Ham—whole, fully cookedFrozen or refrigerator coldN/A7 days1-2 months
Ham—canned, labeled “Keep Refrigerated”Refrigerator coldN/A6-9 months unopened;
7 days opened
1-2 months opened
Ham—canned, shelf stableRoom temperature2 years3-4 days opened1-2 months opened
Ham—fully cooked, vacuum sealed at plant, undated, unopenedFrozen or refrigerator coldN/A2 weeks1-2 months
Ham—fully cooked, vacuum sealed at plant, dated, unopenedFrozen or refrigerator coldN/AUse by date1-2 months
Sausage—dry fermented, not labeled “Keep Refrigerated”Room temperature4 -6 weeks6 months unopened;
2-3 weeks opened
1-2 months
Sausage—Summer, not labeled “Keep Refrigerated”Room temperature4-6 weeks6 months unopened; 2-3 weeks opened1-2 months
Sausage—Summer, labeled “Keep Refrigerated”Frozen or refrigerator coldN/A3 months unopened;
3 weeks opened
1-2 months
Frozen entrees—meat or vegetableFrozenN/A3-4 days after cooking2-3 months, cook frozen
Caviar—non-pasteurized (fresh)Refrigerator coldN/A6 months unopened;
2 days opened
Do not freeze
Caviar—pasteurized, vacuum packageRoom temperatureRefrigerate upon arrival1 year unopenedDo not freeze
Hors d’Oeuvres / PastriesFrozen or refrigerator coldN/A3-4 days after cooking3 months
Lobster—liveAlive in sea waterN/A1-2 days, aliveDo not freeze
Salmon—smoked, clear vacuum package (e.g., Nova Lox)Frozen or refrigerator coldN/A7 days unopened;
2 days opened
2 months
Salmon—vacuum packaged, and/or labeled “Keep Refrigerated”Frozen or refrigerator coldN/A7 days unopened;
2 days opened
2 months
Salmon—smoked, heavy metallic pouch in outer cardboard container, shelf stableRoom temperature1 year unopened2 days openedN/A
Frozen entrees—seafoodFrozenN/A2 days after thawing1 year
Cheese Products
Cheese—soft (e.g., cream cheese)Refrigerator coldN/A2 weeks openedN/A
Cheese—processed or hardSafe at room temperature, but refrigeration prolongs qualityN/A3-6 months unopened;
3-4 months opened;
2 weeks sliced
small pieces
6 months
CheesecakeFrozen or refrigerator coldN/A7 days3 months
Fruit Products
Fruit—fresh whole*Refrigerator cold or room temperature*Fruit storage varies by type. After refrigerating, store from 3 days to 3 weeks; prepared for freezing, fruits can be frozen for up to 1 year.
Fruit—driedRoom temperature1 month6 months after openedN/A
Fruit Cakes / Plum PuddingCold or room temperature1 month, quality better if refrigerated or frozen6 months1 year
Fruit / Nut BreadsCold or room temperatureN/A7 days6 months
Frosted cakes, layered tortes, petit foursFrozen or refrigerator cold2 days3 days2 months
Chocolate candy / other confectionsCold or room temperature1 year1 year1 year
Jams / JelliesRoom temperature12 months unopened6 monthsN/A
Pickles, pickled vegetablesRoom temperature1 year2 months openedN/A
OlivesRoom temperature1 year2 weeksN/A
Oil, olive or vegetableRoom temperature6 months unopened;
3 months opened
Oils, nutRoom temperature6 months unopened4 months openedN/A
VinegarRoom temperature2 years unopened; 1 year openedN/AN/A
MustardRoom temperature1 year unopened; 1 month opened1 year openedN/A
HoneyRoom temperature1 yearN/AN/A
Pure Maple SyrupRoom temperature2 years unopened1 year openedN/A
Nuts—cans, jars, or cellophaneRoom temperature1 year unopened6 months opened1 year opened
Tea—BagsRoom temperature18 monthsN/AN/A
Tea—LooseRoom temperature2 yearsN/AN/A
Tea—InstantRoom temperature3 yearsN/AN/A
Coffee—Whole beans, non-vacuum bagRoom temperature1-3 weeks2 weeks3-4 months
Coffee—Ground, in canRoom temperature2 years2 weeks3-4 months
Coffee—Instant, jars, & tinsRoom temperature1 year unopened; 2-3 months opened2 weeks3-4 months