Bulletin #4274, Food for Holiday Giving: Safety Comes First!

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Food Safety Facts

holiday gift of homemade jam

By Mahmoud El-Begearmi, Extension professor, nutrition, and food safety

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Now that you have decided this year’s holiday gifts will be of the delicious, nutritious variety, you have some homework to do. You have to decide what foods to give, whether they will be produced commercially or made at home, how to package, label, and deliver the food. You also may need to let the recipient know how to keep and use the food item once they get it.

Some food gifts are best when they’re not a surprise.

If a product is labeled “Keep Refrigerated,” this means that not all the bacteria have been inhibited or destroyed. Refrigeration is needed to control bacterial growth, and keep the food safe. The last thing you want is to spoil people’s holidays by giving them gifts they get sick from or have to throw out. So, if you are sending a gift of food this holiday, use these pointers to make sure it is not only delicious and nutritious, but safe as well.

Ask questions. If you are ordering a gift to be sent from a mail-order company, ask how the gift will be packaged and mailed. It should be packed in foam or heavy corrugated cardboard. If it is perishable, it needs to be packed ice-cold or frozen with a cold source, such as dry ice or a frozen gel pack. It also should be labeled “Keep Refrigerated” and mailed overnight delivery.

Include instructions. Make sure any mail-order item of an unusual nature comes with storage and preparation instructions. Nothing is worse than to open a food package from Aunt Millie, but not know if it is safe or what to do with it.

Package safely. If you’re packing your own perishable food gift, freeze it solid first, then pack as recommended above. Be sure to fill any empty spaces in the packing box with crushed paper or foam “popcorn;” air spaces encourage thawing. Also, label “Perishable— Keep Refrigerated.”

Give advance notice. Regardless of how it’s sent, alert the recipient of the expected delivery date so he/she (or a neighbor) can be home to receive the gift. Otherwise, it may sit unsafely on the doorstep or at the post office for hours, or even days. Do not have perishable items delivered to an office unless you know they will arrive on a work day, and there is refrigerator space available to keep them cold.

If you are on the receiving end of a holiday food item, the following information will help you deal with your gift to ensure its quality and safety.

Smoked products, including turkey, game birds and fish: Turkeys, salmon, hams, and other meats are mostly smoked for flavor, not preservation. Some of the smoked meat may be vacuum-packed and shipped fully cooked and ready-to-eat. Vacuum packaging extends shelf life somewhat, but does not reduce the need for refrigeration. Some firms ship smoked turkey frozen or nearly frozen. In this case, make sure that they can guarantee getting your turkey to its destination frozen or at least very, very cold.

Turkey that arrives frozen can be stored in the freezer for about six months without loss of quality. If the meat arrives cold but not frozen, it should be refrigerated for use within a week. If mail-order turkey, fish, or other meat arrives warm, throw it out! Also, don’t eat any poultry or meat with an off odor or a slimy, slippery feel. It may be contaminated with bacteria that can cause food poisoning..

Hams and sausages: With the exception of dry-cured hams and hard, dry sausages, ham and sausage need refrigeration and should arrive very cold. Some canned meat products are heated to 250ºF, like vegetables and other canned goods. This effectively sterilizes them so they are shelf-stable. But some canned hams receive only a mild heat treatment after canning and are not sterile. These hams must be kept refrigerated. Again, if a mail-order ham or sausage labeled “Keep Refrigerated” is not cold when it arrives, send it back. If a can of ham is swollen, don’t even open it. Swollen cans can signify trouble, perhaps even the toxin that causes botulism.

Sausage labeled “Keep Refrigerated” can be stored in the refrigerator up to one week. Hard dry sausage, in an unopened vacuum package, can be kept in the cabinet for four to six weeks, and in the refrigerator six months. After opening, store up to three weeks in the refrigerator.

Fresh beef, pork, and lamb: Mail-order beef, pork, and lamb usually are shipped frozen and should arrive cold or frozen. These items often are shipped with dry ice, which may evaporate by the time the meat arrives. If the meat has started to thaw by the time you receive it, it can be refrozen as long as it is still frozen hard at the center. If the meat is completely thawed but still cold to the touch, it can be safely stored for one to two days in the refrigerator.

Some meats may be shipped vacuum-packed. Vacuum packaging, while inhibiting the growth of spoilage bacteria, encourages other organisms like Clostridium botulinum that thrive in low-oxygen conditions. Vacuum-packed steaks are as perishable as raw chicken and should be treated the same way.

Cheese: Most hard cheeses ship well. You may see some “weeping” of fat, but this is normal and not a health threat. What can be a health threat is cheese that has become moldy. If moldy cheese arrives on your doorstep, send it back. Generally, processed or hard cheese is safe at room temperature, but refrigeration prolongs quality.

Fruitcakes, jams, jellies and sweets: Because sweet foods are usually packed full of sugar, rum and other preservatives, they seldom pose health threats. One exception is cheesecake. This delicacy usually is shipped frozen and should arrive very cold. If it doesn’t, throw it out. It it does, refrigerate it immediately.

In summary

If you receive a food item marked “Keep Refrigerated,” open it immediately, and check its temperature. Ideally, the food should arrive frozen or partially frozen with ice crystals still visible, or at least refrigerator-cold to the touch. If perishable food arrives warm, notify the company if you think a refund is in order. Do not eat the food.

Remember, it’s the shipper’s responsibility to deliver perishable foods on time; it is the customer’s responsibility to have someone at home to receive the package. Finally, refrigerate or freeze perishable items immediately. Even if a product is partially defrosted, it’s generally safe to refreeze, although there may be some loss in quality.

For more information about food safety, call USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-800-535-4555 or contact your University of Maine Cooperative Extension county office.

Sources: USDA, Food Safety and Inspection Service. Mail Order Food Safety. October 1994.

Information in this publication is provided purely for educational purposes. No responsibility is assumed for any problems associated with the use of products or services mentioned. No endorsement of products or companies is intended, nor is criticism of unnamed products or companies implied.

© 2006

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