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

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Food Safety Facts

holiday gift of homemade jam

Original by Mahmoud El-Begearmi, Extension professor, nutrition, and food safety.

Updated and revised by Beth Calder, food science specialist, Robson Machado, food science specialist, and Jason Bolton, Food Safety Specialist, University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

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Now that you have decided this year’s holiday gifts will be food products 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 will also need to let the recipient know how to keep and use the food item once they receive it.

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

If a product is labeled as “Keep Refrigerated,” this means that not all the bacteria have been inhibited or destroyed. Refrigeration or freezing the food is needed to control bacterial growth, and to keep it safe. The last thing you want is to spoil people’s holidays by giving them gifts that make them extremely sick after consumption or have to throw the gift out. If you plan on sending food gifts 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 to prevent damage during shipping. If it is perishable, it must be packed frozen and always with a cold source, such as dry ice or a frozen gel pack. It also should be labeled “Keep Refrigerated” and mailed for overnight delivery.

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

Package safely. If you’re packing your own homemade perishable food gift, freeze it solid first, then pack as recommended above with a cold source. Be sure to fill any empty spaces in the packing box with crushed paper or foam “peanuts;” as air spaces encourage thawing. Also, label “Perishable— Keep Refrigerated” on the box and insert instructions on how to safely preserve the product and when it is best to consume it.

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

Smoked meat products: Turkeys, salmon, hams, and other meat products 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 still requires the product to be kept frozen or refrigerated. 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 partially frozen.

Turkey that arrives frozen can be stored in the freezer for about nine months without loss of quality. If the meat arrives cold but not frozen, it should be temperature checked. If mail-order turkey, fish, or other meat products arrive warm (internal temperature above 41 degrees F), throw it out!  For guidance on how to accurately take the internal temperature of meat products, visit this USDA website: https://www.fsis.usda.gov/food-safety/safe-food-handling-and-preparation/food-safety-basics/kitchen-thermometers.  Also, do not eat any poultry or meat with an off-odor or a slimy, slippery feel. It may be contaminated with bacteria that can possibly cause food poisoning.

Hams and sausages: Ham and sausages require refrigeration and should arrive partially frozen or at an internal temperature of 41 degrees F or below. Some canned meat products are heated to 250ºF under pressure during processing, such as vegetables and other canned goods. This treatment effectively sterilizes the food so they are shelf-stable and do not require refrigeration. 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 meat product labeled as “Keep Refrigerated” is warm when it arrives, do not eat the product and notify the company. If a canned food product is received swollen, do not even open it and dispose of the food product. A swollen can signifies trouble, perhaps even containing the toxin that causes botulism.

Sausage labeled as “Keep Refrigerated” can be stored in the refrigerator for up to one week. Hard dry sausage, in an unopened vacuum package, can be kept shelf-stable (at room temperature) for up to six weeks, and in the refrigerator for six months. After the product has been opened, store the product for 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 frozen or partially 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 out, but is still cold to the touch, check the internal product temperature is 41 degrees F or below using the guidance above.   If the product temperature is above 41 degrees F, dispose of the product.  If the product is at 41 degrees F or below, it can be safely stored in the refrigerator and used within one to two days.

Some meats may be shipped vacuum-packed. While inhibiting the growth of spoilage bacteria, vacuum packaging encourages the growth of 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.  Frozen meats (especially in a vacuum package) should always be thawed under refrigeration and not at room temperature.

For more information on how to handle meat products safely, visit this USDA website: https://www.fsis.usda.gov/food-safety/safe-food-handling-and-preparation.

Cheese: Most hard cheeses are safe to ship at room temperature. You may see some “weeping” of fat with hard cheeses, but this is normal and not a health threat. What can be a health threat is a hard cheese that has become moldy (if not a mold-ripened cheese). If moldy cheese arrives on your doorstep, send it back. Generally, processed or hard cheeses should be stored under refrigeration to prolong quality and safety.  However, soft cheeses must be shipped and received with a cold source and stored under refrigeration.

Fruitcakes, jams, jellies, and sweets: Sweet foods, and most baked goods, are high in sugar content and seldom pose health threats. One exception is cheesecake or dairy-based, baked goods (such as cream pies, baked goods with cream cheese/buttercream frostings/fillings, eclairs, etc.). Cheesecake is usually shipped frozen and should arrive cold. If it is received at an internal product temperature above 41 deg F, do not consume it and dispose of the product.  If you are planning on producing your own jams, jellies and canned goods, be sure to produce products following a reputable canning recipe, such as Ball canning books (published at least 10 years ago or newer), from online Ball recipes: https://www.freshpreserving.com/recipes?fdid=recipes, or from the National Center for Home Food Preservation: https://nchfp.uga.edu/ or their “So Easy to Preserve” canning book or online website: https://nchfp.uga.edu/publications/publications_uga.html.  Cooperative Extension recipes and publications are also reputable resources.  Shelf-stable canned goods should be labeled with “Refrigerate after opening”.

In summary

If you receive a food item marked “Keep Refrigerated,” open it immediately, and check the product temperature. Ideally, perishable foods should arrive frozen or partially frozen with ice crystals still visible. If perishable food arrives at an internal temperature of 41 deg F or higher, notify the company if you think a refund is in order, do not eat the food, and dispose of it.

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 meat and poultry-based food safety questions, call USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-674-6854 (https://www.fsis.usda.gov/food-safety/safe-food-handling-and-preparation/usda-meat-and-poultry-hotline) 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.

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