Understanding how to ship perishable foods is critical for any food business that ships products to customers. Whatever foods you sell and ship, they need to get to your customers fresh and free of any contamination. Having your items show up spoiled or in poor condition will definitely cost you both customers and revenue.

Perishable food items make up well over 70% of all freight shipped across the US, and many of them need to be kept at particular temperature ranges or need special handling and packing and measures.

Seeing how shipping perishables can be both expensive and challenging, it’s crucial that you know how to correctly handle them. In this article, we’ll discuss how to pack and ship perishable food, and some best practices for ensuring a smooth process.

The challenges of shipping perishable food

Any food item that can spoil or become unsafe to eat if environmental conditions (like humidity or extreme temperatures) are not maintained at specific levels is considered perishable. Think cooked food, dairy, meat, eggs, seafood, live fish, fruits, plants, and vegetables. Even flowers and pharmaceuticals are included.

When such items are stored for more than seven days under normal shipping conditions, they can result in a bad odor or nuisance, potentially creating a health hazard as well.

Research by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) shows that a staggering 45% of fresh food produce is lost or wasted due to non-compliance with temperature limits.

As such, the challenges associated with the supply chain management of perishable products are significant. These include:

1. Extreme temperatures

The fate of a perishable shipment depends on the vehicle for transportation and the temperature the perishables need to stay usable.

In such a situation, any exposure outside specific environmental conditions can affect the food and cause spoilage. Even changes in the weather, if it’s too hot or cold, can greatly affect packed and frozen foods.

Shippers face the complex task of trying to prevent improper handling, power loss, and broken cold chains.

2. Regulatory requirements

Regulations regarding how perishable food products are shipped, processed, and stored have only grown stricter in recent years.

Today, retailers, manufacturers, and logistics service providers shipping perishable goods are usually subject to close regulations (such as FSMA) that have added layers of complexity to the shipping process.

These requirements are updated quite often, and you need to keep yourself informed about them, or else, your shipments may get rejected or even destroyed.

3. Shipping delays and high shipping costs

With the increased frequency of delays in global trade, some disruptions must be taken into consideration when shipping perishable goods.

Disruptions that can cause delays in the supply chain could include bad weather, port holdups, delayed customs processes, or just miscommunication. These could mean disaster when you’re shipping perishable foods.

4. Cross-contamination risks

Not having the food items prepared properly for shipping can be fatal and cause serious health issues for transportation providers and the customers buying the products.

Food companies have an enhanced obligation to employ packaging and handling procedures that eliminate the risk of diseases and contamination. Failure to do so will necessitate getting rid of all the products.

How to pack and ship perishable food

noissue Stand Up Pouches and Custom Takeout Bags by @thepastryproject_

Successfully shipping perishable foodstuffs requires precise planning and flawless execution. To ship perishables successfully, you must pack them properly, abide by applicable regulations, and deliver them within a reasonable time limit so they don’t deteriorate.

The steps we’ve outlined below will help to minimize loss and enhance profitability.

Step 1: Consider what's needed to ship your food items

The first step is to think about the types of food products you’re shipping and the type of packaging and care they may need.

Certain perishables, such as bakery items will be non-refrigerated. Others like fresh produce or dairy may be refrigerated, while food items like meat and seafood will be frozen.

For non-refrigerated items, it is important to think about external factors such as weather that could affect the integrity of the food. You must identify their ideal shipping temperature and states, so you can plan accordingly.

Similarly, frozen or refrigerated foods will also require special planning.

This section will deal with non-refrigerated food items and refrigerated items that are simply kept cold. The process of shipping frozen foods will be discussed in the next section of the article.

Step 2: Ensure you can send the item

Always check with your shipping carrier if they allow the items you’re planning to send. For example, UPS does not allow the shipment of dry ice via international mail.

This is the step where you may have to consider using a carrier outside the traditional shipping companies. Depending on what you're sending, you might need to consider freight services that are temperature controlled.

For international shipments, you’ll also need to know about any applicable restrictions in the destination you’re shipping to so that your package is accepted. We advise that you talk to different carriers about your unique needs.

Step 3: Properly wrap the food

How you wrap the food will depend on whether your shipment consists of frozen, refrigerated, or non-refrigerated food.

For non-refrigerated foods like fruits, wrap the item in breathable packing. Greasy food items should be wrapped in wax paper so that it doesn’t get greasy or moist. noissue’s Custom Wax Paper is made from 100% FSC-certified acid-free paper and uses a food-safe wax coating. Plus, you can customize them with your brand colors, designs, or logo to show off your brand in style.

noissue Custom Wax Paper is a great way to keep perishable foods fresh

Refrigerated foods, on the other hand, need to be refrigerated or cooled sufficiently before packing. They should then be placed in waterproof or airtight bags. Airtight bags are especially important for food items prone to leaks if damage occurs during transit. Seafood should be wrapped in two bags for extra protection against extreme weather.

Pro Tip: Never pack hot food. The resulting condensation will cause the items to become soggy and may even cause mold growth.

Step 4: Add gel ice packs

For refrigerated food that should be cooled at 32° F (0° C) and 60° F (16° C), use gel ice packs as the coolant. You must precool the container and freeze the coolants according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Place coolants on all sides and on top of the food, but make sure you separate the ice from the item using cardboard.

You can use other kinds of ice packs, but your choice of coolant must be able to maintain the desired temperature in your box for a minimum of 30 hours.

Step 5: Add a liner bag

You should pack the perishable item, gel ice packs, and cardboard in a two-millimeter liner bag.

Place absorbent material on top of the shipping liner bag to capture any liquid or condensation, then close it by twisting the top of the bag tightly and sealing it with a rubber band.

You can purchase these bags online or at local office supply stores.

Step 6: Place the items in a suitable container

The food items should be placed inside a sturdy, insulated box with foam padding inside to preserve cool temperatures. The thicker the padding, the longer the items can likely last at desired temperatures. Consider using insulated foam containers that have thick walls – at least an inch and a half.

Cardboard boxes with insulated liners or foam/rigid plastic boxes work well. Other containers you may consider are Styrofoam boxes inside of cardboard boxes, or insulated liners with bubble wrap.

noissue’s Custom Mailer Boxes are made from recycled corrugate rendering them home-compostable or curbside recyclable. We can print them in your brand colors or designs using compostable inks, so you can create a memorable unboxing experience for your customers.

noissue Custom Mailer Boxes can share a call to action for your customer on the outside of the box

If your perishable items include liquids, make sure that you double-bag them in sturdy plastic bags before putting them inside the boxes.

Step 7: Add cushioning

Fill any empty spaces with packing peanuts, bubble wrap, plastic containers, or crumpled paper to prevent movement.

Pack your food shipment so that it can withstand being handled in different orientations. And don’t choose newspaper as your padding material, as it doesn’t have cushioning.

Step 8: Consider adding instructions

The recipient of the package should ideally have access to information about how to handle ice packs, dry ice, and post-shipping storage requirements.

Consider including instructions for the customer inside the box as well as externally.

If the item should arrive cold, instruct the customer to refrigerate or freeze the food (not over 40°F/4.4°C) when they open the package. Also, specify that they should not eat or even taste it if it doesn’t arrive cold.

Step 9: Seal and label the box

Place the lid on the container and seal it using plenty of tape to keep the box from opening up during transportation. Use the ‘H’ tape method to seal the seams, flaps, top, and bottom of the box. noissue’s Water-Activated Tape is not just environmentally friendly but also great for showing off your brand, as it can be personalized easily with any design of your choice.

. noissue's Custom Water-Activated Tape can show off your business name or logo while serving a practical purpose

Avoid using duct tape and masking tape for your shipping box as they can detach in cold weather and melt under hot conditions.

Next, label the box by marking it "Perishable" on the outside. You can also add the instructions "Fragile, handle with care" on the address side of the mailing piece. noissue’s Custom Multi-Design Die Cut Sticker Sheets can come in particularly handy for this purpose. Not only are they compostable and recyclable, but also great for adding some branding to your orders.

noissue Custom Multi-Design Die Cut Sticker Sheets are an effective way to show off your brand's personality

Address the package with a complete mailing address and phone number.

Step 10: Choose the most optimum shipping service

When selecting a shipping service, check if they offer express shipping and seamless delivery. Speedy shipping is essential for making sure your food items are fresh.

The FDA recommends using overnight delivery, and your shipping provider should be able to provide the specific shipping option you need (next-day or overnight delivery).

Also, make sure you send the food items as early in the week as possible. Avoid sending them at the end of the week because your package will probably sit in a shipping facility over the weekend, increasing the chances of spoilage.

It is also good practice to let the recipient know when the perishable items are arriving. If they know when the package is arriving, they can plan to be home in order to safely receive and store the food.

How to pack cold food

The process for shipping frozen food is similar to that of refrigerated food items, however, it is advisable to use dry ice in place of cold packs.

Also, because dry ice is considered as a dangerous good or hazardous material, the box must carry the words “Dry Ice” or “Carbon Dioxide Solid” and “UN 1845.”

Shipping frozen foods with and without dry ice

It should be clear by now that ice packs are to be used when shipping refrigerated items that are only kept cool, while dry ice is to be used when you need to keep your product frozen.

Dry ice (solid carbon dioxide) is extremely effective when it comes to maintaining freezing temperatures because it freezes at -109.3°F. The amount of dry ice you will need depends on how much your product weighs and how long it needs to keep your product frozen. As a general rule, expect five to ten pounds of the coolant to sublimate every 24 hours.

Shipping frozen foods with leading carriers

All the major couriers, including USPS, UPS, and FedEx permit the shipment of perishable and frozen foods. Each of them also offers shipping services that are speedy enough to ensure the quick delivery of food to customers.

Shipping frozen foods with USPS

USPS allows shippers to send frozen food at their own risk and the company does not offer specific refrigeration services for shipments.

Here are the best USPS shipping services for shipping perishable foods:

  • USPS Priority Mail Express: 1 business day
  • USPS Priority Mail: 1 to 3 business days.

Shipping frozen foods with FedEx

FedEx offers excellent courier services for shipping frozen food promptly. There are some guidelines you must follow, but overall, the company’s food shipping services are robust.

Here are the best FedEx shipping services for shipping perishable foods:

  • UPS Next Day Air: Next business day
  • UPS Next Day Air: Early Next business day by 8AM.

Shipping frozen foods with UPS

Like FedEx, UPS is a good option for shipping frozen foods and offers express and overnight delivery services.

Here are the best UPS shipping services for shipping perishable foods:

  • FedEx First Overnight: 1 business day
  • FedEx Priority Overnight: 1 business day.

Best practices for shipping refrigerated items

Finally, here are some best practices for shipping perishable and frozen foods to keep in mind:

Avoid ground delivery courier services

Ground delivery services can take upwards of nearly ten business days to deliver a package, creating the risk of spoilage of the frozen food items – and unhappy customers.

To ensure that your perishable food items arrive fresh, use a carrier that specializes in cold freight. Such carriers have trucks with air conditioning and train their employees to monitor the status of items throughout the delivery process.

Avoid cutting corners in your packaging

You must use proper packaging materials when shipping cold food to avoid any damage or spoilage during transit.

If you’re uncertain about the right packaging materials to use, consult with a packaging expert and ask which method is best for your food shipment.

Make judicious use of coolants

When packing up your items, use an adequate amount of dry ice and frozen gel packs.

As a general rule, use one pound of ice pack for every three pounds of food. With dry ice, it doesn’t exceed 5.5 pounds. Any package that exceeds this dry ice weight may be treated as a hazardous material.

Anticipate shipping lead times, traveling conditions, and other factors that might affect delivery. You must plan well if you want to ensure proper delivery within the required time.

Consider shipping insurance

Things can often go wrong during shipping in ways we least expect. So, it’s important for you to obtain coverage for the costs of loss, negligence, mishandling, or other factors that may affect the delivery.

Most couriers only offer $100 of shipping insurance for express services. However, specialized shipping platforms can offer up to $10,000 of shipping insurance for all domestic and international packages

Wrapping it up

More and more ecommerce businesses and food and meal delivery companies are seeing success by offering quick and painless meal delivery options to their customers. Choosing the right packing and shipping options is critical to the success of these businesses.

Follow the tips mentioned above to identify the best packing options that may suit your business instead of what may be easily available or the least costly. And don’t forget to check out our complete range of sustainable packaging solutions for food and beverages!