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Mail order food safety for the holidays

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Convenience means many things to many people, but anything that helps save time is always high on everyone's list of conveniences. With the holidays just around the corner and 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.

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. Even if a product is smoked, cured, 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.

Miniature deep freeze packaging the illustration (reprinted from Food News for Consumers, Holidays 1988) is an example of a safe way to ship perishable foods.

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).

For further information, contact Rita M. Hodges, County Extension Agent-Family & Consumer Sciences, 701 South I-35 E, Suite 3, Waxahachie, TX or call 972-825-5175 or e-mail: rmhodges @ag.tamu.edu. 

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