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How to ship food so it stays fresh

A tray of attractive muffins await careful shipping

Does shipping food bring to mind soggy boxes, smashed cupcakes and spoiled steaks? It's time to freshen up your thinking.

No matter if you're a fishmonger shipping live lobsters straight from the trap, a cake designer icing your latest custom creation or an artisanal ice cream entrepreneur delivering your locally sourced flavors - your business depends on the goods arriving as fresh as the day they were caught or created.

When shipping perishable food, you're up against a few challenges, such as extreme temperatures, humidity, staleness or even spoilage.

The keys to keeping food shipments fresh are insulation and refrigeration; keeping heat and moisture out and cool temperatures in. These steps can help make shipping your foods easy:

1. Wrap baked goods to create an airtight seal.

It doesn't matter how flawless those fondant flowers are if the cake itself is less than fresh. Seal in that just-baked freshness with plastic wrap. Use shrink wrap for sturdy goodies like Bundt cakes and pies, and wrap plastic around more delicate cakes by hand. Freezing cupcakes and intricate iced cakes can also help them to hold up in transit.

Place cupcakes in a holder with individual spaces and press a candy stick into each cupcake to prevent a potential impact from the lid. Wrap cookies individually in shrink bags or heat-sealed plastic for professional-looking presentation. Pack them snugly in a tin or other sturdy container.

Wrap cupcake holders, tins and other containers in plastic to make them airtight, or seal all edges with sturdy tape.

2. Select appropriate insulation for food that must remain cold or frozen.

Sturdy insulated foam containers are ideal for ice cream, frozen cakes, seafood and other items you want to keep cool or frozen. These containers are available in different thicknesses; the thicker the wall, the less coolant you'll need.

For sturdy items that require less cooling, you may line a shipping box with insulated foam planks or thermal bubble wrap. Thermal bubble mailers are another option for food in containers, such as cupcakes; you'll place the coolant inside the mailer, and pack it all in a sturdy shipping box with ample padding.

For food you want to remain unfrozen, surround it with gel packs within an insulated container.

3. Package items that can melt, thaw or contain liquid in watertight plastic.

Soggy, leaky boxes do not make sturdy shipping containers - or a good customer experience. Avoid a leaky box by lining the inside of your container with a thick plastic liner. Place an absorbent pad or mat on top of the liner.

In addition to the liner, enclose your items in a watertight plastic bag. If you're shipping seafood, it's a good idea to double bag it for extra protection. If you're shipping live seafood like lobsters, oysters or crabs, leave the bags open so air can get in.

If you're planning on shipping fruits or vegetables, review how to safely handle mail order foods for rules and guidelines about shipping fruits and vegetables.

4. Choose the best refrigerant for cold or frozen items.

Gel packs and dry ice are the best options for keeping your food cool in transit. In general, use dry ice for ice cream and other foods you want to keep frozen, and gel packs to keep food between 32 and 60 degrees F. Regular ice is not the best option as it is heavy and can potentially dampen the inside of the container as it melts. If you must ship with frozen water, make sure to use water-resistant packaging and seal it well. It's also a good idea to precool your insulated container before you pack it up to get the most mileage out of your refrigerant.

An obvious advantage of dry ice is that it is, in fact, dry, while gel packs dampen as they thaw. Dry ice is the colder option, but it may not last as long as gel packs. In addition, dry ice is considered a hazardous material; there are restrictions on shipping via air if you're using more than 5.5 pounds of dry ice.

Always wear gloves when handling dry ice to avoid burns. Never wrap your dry ice, as the carbon dioxide that's released can explode if it isn't able to expand. Also, don't use dry ice if you're shipping live seafood.

No matter what you're shipping, never let dry ice come into direct contact with your food. Get more tips on shipping with dry ice, and find out exactly how much you need (and how long it will last) here.

5. Pad and pack to minimize movement.

Avoid broken cookies, bruised fruit and banged up filets by filling extra space in your package with padding. Use materials like bubble wrap and packing peanuts to provide at least 2 to 3 inches of protection around your food. If there is extra space remaining in your foam cooler, add some bubble wrap to stabilize your goods.

Wrap tins and other food containers with ample bubble wrap and stabilize them in the center of your shipping box at least 2 inches from the outer walls. Soft foam inserts with customizable openings are an excellent option for items like fruit and jarred food.

Always pack your perishable foods in a new, sturdy corrugated box. That goes for your foam cooler as well: Always enclose it in a sturdy box. Seal all seams of the box completely on top and bottom with pressure-sensitive packing tape.

6. Ship your perishables fast to minimize transit time.

For best results, plan for a maximum transit time of 30 hours. UPS Next Day Air® service is recommended, though UPS 2nd Day Air® shipping may be suitable for foods that require minimal temperature control. Ship early enough in the week so that your package will not sit over a weekend.

7. Monitor your shipment.

Keep an eye on your goods and track your shipment with UPS® Tracking. You can track a single shipment or up to 25 shipments at a time.

A Small Business Guide to Shipping Perishable Food

FDA Sanitary Transportation of Human and Animal Food Rule

USDA Mail Order Food Safety

Three important reminders

1. These are general suggestions and may not be appropriate for all shipments.

2. The shipper should always ensure that whatever is added to the packaging to maintain temperature will not be hazardous to the shipment, and that it will not contaminate any edible products.

3. Shippers also must research product requirements to ensure the packaging and/or coolant products used meet the needs of the product and ensure its safe transportation.

Find Out More

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