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The online ordering of food has increased significantly within the last few years. Major grocery retailers and specialty online food merchants like Blue Apron, HelloFresh, Walmart and others are rushing to meet the demands of busy families and individuals that are looking for time saving and convenient ways to buy their food.

The selection of fresh produce, raw meats, poultry, fish and dairy products, all available at the click of the keyboard key, now allow the home user to have those items shipped to their door. While the mail-order industry has relied on a safe track record, there is growing concern with the limited food safety guidance currently in place by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as it reviews and studies the issues. Numerous independent studies conducted to evaluate the potential food safety risks of raw or processed perishable products shipped to the home have found products arriving at temperatures above 40 F, placing them at risk for microorganism spoilage and producing harmful foodborne pathogenic bacteria, which can make you sick.

So, as a consumer, what can you do?

• Review how the company packages and sends perishable food ingredients. Determine if additional cold packs or dry ice can be purchased to protect those perishable products during shipping. Ideally, the food should be packed in foam or heavy corrugated cardboard.

• Determine how the product will be shipped. Select overnight or the shortest delivery time to ensure proper temperature control has been maintained. Order your food items early in the week, because some shipping companies only deliver during the weekday. Food products sitting at a warehouse over the weekend are in danger of temperature abuse. And, when you place your order, ensure that someone will be available at home to inspect the product upon delivery.

• Promptly open and inspect frozen and refrigerated products. Purchase a food thermometer and take internal temperatures of refrigerated products. Notify the company of any refrigerated products at a temperature above 40 F. Frozen foods should arrive frozen or partially frozen. Signs of ice crystals on the product can be evidence that the product was thawed and then refrozen. Inspect packages for tears or leaks. Above all else, notify the company immediately of your concerns. Discard any perishable product that has been temperature-abused. You don’t know how long it has been in the temperature “danger zone.”

Shipping Food

For the many Americans who like to cook and ship food they made to family and friends across the nation, there are important tips you can do to ensure your food products arrive safely.

• Select an appropriate foam or heavy corrugated cardboard box to ship those perishable items in, and use ice packs or dry ice to maintain good temperature control. An important step is to ensure that you have sufficient amounts of ice packs or dry ice to maintain the temperature for the duration of the shipping time to the final destination.

• Select the fastest delivery schedule and send packages out at the beginning of the week; many delivery carriers only deliver during the business days. You do not want a perishable product sitting in a mailing facility over the weekend.

• Mark your package on the outside with “Keep Refrigerated” and “Perishable.” Request a tracking code and send the intended receiver the tracking code or expected delivery date so that the shipped food item can be received and promptly inspected and stored.

Remember, temperature control is critical for perishable foods.

Rick Kralj is a Penn State Extension senior educator in food safety and quality.

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