If you sell perishable, frozen or cold food, understanding how cold shipping works is critical if you want to capitalize on the rapid growth of the ecommerce sector.

The food and beverage ecommerce sector is expected to grow from $25 billion in 2020 to $67 billion in 2025, and shipping remains one of the biggest challenges for businesses looking to step into the sector.

Whether you sell ice cream, baked goods, seafood, meat, or any perishable food, your product must get to the customer fresh and free of any contamination. This means you must master how to package and ship frozen food.

In this article, we will help you understand the proper packing and shipping procedures for frozen food, and show you how to choose the right shipping carrier for your goods.

What is the process of shipping frozen foods?

To ensure your frozen foods are shipped to your customers without any major issues, you need to use insulation and refrigeration to keep the food fresh and prevent staleness or spoilage.

A tailored packaging, shipping, and monitoring process will help you simplify the process of shipping the perishable items to your customers. Below we have outlined a step-by-step guide to help make shipping frozen foods easy for you:

Step 1: Product preparation and packaging

Product preparation involves freezing your food item before shipping to prevent condensation. If it’s baked food, you must precool your food before packaging it. Packaging warm or hot food can lead to mold buildup or cause the food to get spoilt before delivery.

The next thing to consider is packaging.  Your packaging must be sturdy, and able to keep the food at a consistent, desired temperature for a long period of time. You should also ensure that the materials you use are safe and non-toxic when they come in contact with food.

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Do some research to find out the right temperature that must be maintained for the food item you are shipping. You should also identify the right packing material for your product.

The type and volume of items you are shipping will determine the type of cold shipping boxes you require. Foam containers are typically used for items like ice cream or seafood that you want to keep frozen, while a vacuum-sealed bag is often used when shipping meat.

It’s worth noting that these aren’t the most sustainable options in the market, so if you’re looking to be more eco-friendly when shipping frozen goods, we highly recommend looking into recyclable, biodegradable, or compostable alternatives.

Green Cell Foam, a company that makes bio-based foam, offers a viable alternative to styrofoam. Its Green Cell Plus product is made out of corn that dissolves in water. Plus, the material is equiped with a recyclable, moisture-resistant barrier that offers a layer of protection for shipping frozen and perishable goods.

There also a number of biodegradable and compostable vacuum seal products in the market. Vesta Precision, for example, developed VestaEco — a line of vacuum seal bags made from plant sources.

You could also consider eco-friendly heat seal bags, which are made from plant-based materials. These bags can be sealed with a crimp sealer or poly heat sealer, and they are FDA-approved for direct contact with food.

We will touch more on packaging later in the article.

Step 2: Secure food that can melt with watertight plastic bags

Before choosing the coolant for your food, you must ask yourself if your food shipment contains liquid that could runoff during transit. You don’t want your shipping box to arrive at the customer’s doorstep soggy and leaking.

To avoid a leaky box, place absorbent materials like paper towels or cellulose wadding at the bottom of the container to absorb the liquid. You must also double-bag your insulated container with a 2-mil watertight bags, and seal each bag using the fold-over method.Once again, it’s best to opt for plant-based plastic alternatives such as Green Cell Foam, VestaEco, and eco-friendly heat seal bags.

If you are shipping live food like oysters or crabs, leave the bag unsealed to ensure air can get in.

Step 3: Use dry ice or gel packs as coolants for your food item

Gel packs and dry ice are the primary coolants that are used to keep food frozen during shipping. Dry ice is used for food items that you want to keep frozen, while gel packs are used for food that you want to keep cool but unfrozen.

Dry ice is used because regular ice is heavy and it will dampen the container when it melts. Dry ice is colder at -109.3 degrees F. and it is made from frozen carbon dioxide.

Dry ice is however classified as a hazardous material and there are restrictions when your package exceeds 5.5 pounds and shipping via air carriers.

Always wear gloves when handling dry ice and wrap it in newspaper before lining your shipping box with the ice.

Use gel packs for food items that must be cooled at 32 degrees F and 60 degrees F. Make sure you put the food item in a sealed plastic bag before you surround it with gel packs to prevent freezing.

Step 4: Pad and pack your product into the insulated box

Place the food item inside the box and surround it with an adequate amount of the right type of coolant. The empty space should be filled with padding material to prevent product movement.

Use materials like tissue paper, peanuts and bubble wrap alternatives to provide at least 3 inches of protection around your food.

Be sure to use a sturdy, corrugated cardboard box and seal using the H tape method. It's a method where you apply at least three strips of pressure-sensitive packing tape over all the seams of the box.

Step 5: Apply the correct labeling and classification

Label your shipping box as perishable and follow all the requirements of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) in marking your box.

IATA’s dangerous goods regulations are particularly important when you are shipping perishable food preserved with dry ice.

IATA requires the outer packaging of all dry ice shipments to contain the following markings:

  • “Dry Ice” or “Carbon Dioxide Solid”
  • The net weight of the dry ice in kilograms
  • The name and address of the shipper
  • The name and address of the recipient

Be sure to select “dry ice” when you are processing your shipment online with your carrier.

Step 6: Choose a shipping carrier with no restrictions on your product

The right carrier for you will depend on the item you're shipping, the coolants you are using, and how quickly you need your product to get to its destination. Perishable foods should generally not spend more than 30 hours in transit.

Also, check if your carrier has any restrictions on the frozen item you are shipping. Most carriers won’t let you ship more than 5.5 pounds of dry ice per package.

If it's international shipping, the destination country may have restrictions on the type of items you are trying to send to the country. Perishable food items like vegetables and fresh meat can’t be mailed to another country. Dry ice is also prohibited in international mail.

Check out the website of your carrier or reach out to customer support to get clarification on shipping requirements for frozen food.

Step 7: Choose fast shipping

After selecting a carrier, make sure you choose a 1 or 2-day shipping option. Overnight shipping is also a good option. Speed is essential when you are transporting temperature-sensitive items.

All the carriers offer different fast shipping options, and be sure to select the option that offers the best balance of speed and affordability.

Try to ship early during the week to avoid delays that may be caused by holidays or where your carrier doesn’t offer weekend shipments.

What are the best packing materials for shipping perishable food?

Packaging frozen foods is a dynamic process that requires knowledge of the appropriate packing material and coolant that will preserve the item at the right temperature.

The packaging must also be sturdy enough to protect the item from external factors that could cause spoilage. Here are some of the essential features your packaging material must have:

  • It must be strong and able to resist cracking at low temperatures
  • It must be moisture resistant
  • It must be easy to fill and seal
  • It must be easy to transport and store
  • It must be resistant to grease and oil

Here are the popular types of packaging materials used to ship frozen foods:

  • Cardboard boxes: cardboard boxes are ubiquitous, and boxes with insulated liners are used to transport frozen foods. The box can also be wax coated to make it heat resistant enough for the buyer to place it directly in a microwave.
  • Green Cell Plus: made with corn-based materials, use Green Cell Plus to line the inside of your shipping boxes. Because the material is moisture-resistant, it can keep your products insulated and fresh during transit.
  • Flexible, vacuum-filled bags: this is used for packaging food items like meat, fruits, frozen vegetables, and pre-made meals. As mentioned above, it’s best to use eco-friendly and foodsafe bags to ensure that you’re shipping items in the most sustainable way,
  • Aluminum foil pan: this is used to ship greasy food like steaks, fries, chips, lasagna, and others. The foil pan will be covered with a cardboard topper and sealed.
  • Lidding Film: this is a transparent plastic container that is used when the shipper wants full visibility of the product contained within the package.
  • Glass: it is not commonly used because it is a weighty packaging material. However, if you are shipping luxury food items, glass packaging is an option for satisfying demanding customers.

What are the shipping options for your frozen food?

Below are the popular shipping carriers that can help get your food items to the doorstep of your customers along with their general requirements.

Shipping frozen food through USPS

USPS doesn’t offer refrigeration services and you are responsible for packaging your frozen food properly to prevent leaks or spoilage.

The best USPS shipping option for frozen foods is Priority Mail Express. Your product will be delivered within 24hours to urban locations and within 2-days to rural locations.

Here are some USPS guidelines you must follow:

  • The package must be clearly marked with the name of the item being cooled and the net weight of the coolant.
  • Dry ice containers must be leak-proof and should not be airtight to ensure condensation and carbon dioxide gas from the ice can escape.
  • Dry ice is only permitted up to 5 pounds per mailpiece for domestic shipping.  It is not permitted for international shipping.
  • A declaration of dangerous goods must be attached to the outside of the dry ice package.

Shipping frozen food through FedEx

The best FedEx shipping options for frozen foods are FedEx Overnight Shipping, FedEx 1Day Freight, and FedEx International Next Flight.

For domestic transport, the shipping company requires that perishable items must be able to withstand a minimum of 24 hours of transit time. It also offers a suite of temperature-controlled solutions called FedEx Temp-Assure.

Here are some FedEx guidelines you must follow:

  • You must use an insulated foam container for your frozen item with a minimum of 4-cm thick walls
  • The foam container must be placed inside a sturdy outer container
  • Dry ice containers must be labeled with the appropriate IATA markings

Shipping frozen food through UPS

Use either UPS Express Critical Domestic Shipping or UPS Next Day Air to ensure your food item gets to your customer within 30 hours.

UPS does not allow frozen water to be used as coolants, and dry ice is limited to 5.5 pounds per package.

Below are the UPS guidelines you should keep in mind:

  • Thick insulated foam containers must be used
  • The container should be enclosed in a water tightbag and the shipping box should be lined with a thick lining material
  • Dry ice packages must comply with all IATA regulations.

How much does shipping frozen food cost?

There is no fixed cost for shipping frozen foods and you need to consider a number of factors before you arrive at the amount you will spend on shipping your goods. Some things to consider are:

  • Cost of packing
  • Your choice of coolant (dry ice or gel packs)
  • Cost of padding materials
  • Cost of the shipping box
  • The type of frozen food you are shipping
  • The weight of your item
  • The distance to be covered.

The costs associated with these factors will determine your final shipping cost. Shipping perishables can be relatively expensive compared to when you are shipping other items.

Settle for a shipping vendor that you trust and whose rates are well within your budget. Be mindful of the need for speedy delivery.

Use an online shipping calculator to get accurate rates and delivery time estimates for your item. You can reduce the shipping charge shock for your customers by adding most of the shipping costs into the price of the product.

How to ship frozen food cheaply

Small businesses often don’t have thousands of dollars to spend on shipping and a well-defined shipping strategy is needed to ensure you don’t attract the wrath of your customers with high shipping charges.

Here are a few tips to help you ship frozen foods cheaply:

Leverage incentive pricing

Contact the representatives of your carrier to inquire about the pricing incentives you can get when you are shipping large volumes of products. You can get up to 30% off when shipping moderate volumes of items with UPS.

Use 2-Day shipping when possible

2-day shipping is significantly cheaper than overnight shipping, and it's a good option if you are confident your food item will remain in perfect condition for that long. If you are using 2-day delivery, make your shipping policy available to customers on your online store to avoid disappointing customers.

Save money on packaging

Use packaging that is as compact as possible to fall within a reasonably-priced dimensional weight. Reducing your shipping box by an inch or two can save you a lot of money.

Wrapping it Up

Shipping frozen foods doesn't have to be a hassle provided you use the right packaging, follow carrier labeling requirements, and opt for fast shipping to ensure your products arrive on time.

Use the information you have gotten from this article to start capitalizing on that rapidly growing food and beverage ecommerce market.

Enjoyed this story? Check out more in our Shipping Series:

How to Ship Food: A Guide for Small to Medium-Sized Businesses

How to Ship Liquids

How to Ship Clothes: a Step-by-Step Guide