The gift of food can be a delightful part of the holidays. But before taking the first bite, make sure the food had a safe trip to your doorstep and didn’t take a detour into the temperature danger zone.
“Mail-order food companies have an excellent safety record, but delays, breakage and failure of cold packing can happen,” said Londa Nwadike, food safety specialist with University of Missouri Extension and Kansas State University Research and Extension. “That’s why it’s important to inspect food gifts when they arrive to make sure they’re in good condition.”
If the item is marked “keep refrigerated,” open right away and use a food thermometer to make sure the temperature is below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Ideally, food should arrive frozen or partially frozen, with ice crystals still visible.
Even most smoked or cooked meat requires refrigeration for safety (unless labeled otherwise), so it should be shipped with an ice source to keep it below 40 degrees, said Nwadike.
If perishable mail-order food is above 40 degrees at arrival, don’t eat or even taste it. Contact the company and follow its return policy.
Some mail-order foods, such as hard salami, don’t require refrigeration because they’ve been cured, fermented and dried for weeks prior to shipping. Unless they are labeled “keep refrigerated,” you can store them for a few weeks at room temperature.
Most semi-dry sausages require immediate refrigeration. To be on the safe side, check the label on all sausages and make sure they arrived at the recommended temperature.
Cheese, especially cheddar, travels well and shows little deterioration in cold weather. Soft cheeses, such as cream cheese, must arrive cold. Processed or hard cheeses can arrive at room temperature but should be refrigerated upon arrival.
If you receive more cheese than you can eat, freeze the surplus. Cut it into normal serving chunks, secure each individual piece tightly in plastic wrap, place the pieces in plastic bags and freeze. When you’re ready to use it, take out only the amount you need, and place it in the refrigerator to defrost for a couple of days.
Nuts, jams and jellies should be refrigerated after opening. You also can freeze nuts to prevent them from becoming dry or rancid.
“Remember, if perishable food arrives warm (above 40 F), spoiled or in questionable condition, don’t eat or even taste it,” Nwadike cautioned.
Contact the U.S. Food and Drug Administration food safety hotline at 888-723-3366 with general consumer food safety questions. For questions about meat and poultry, call the U.S. Department of Agriculture hotline at 888-674-6854 weekdays between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. CST.
For more MU Extension resources on food safety, go to missourifamilies.org/foodsafety and extension.missouri.edu/preservation.