Tons of food products are shipped throughout the US each day, and packing them is a challenge. Mail-order food is considered fragile because it is perishable and crushable, and buyers demand that it stays presentable even after a long journey.
You want your sumptuous eats to reach your customers fresh and looking as good as they do on your online shop’s pictures. In this blog, we shall detail a guide for startups to successfully ship food, even out-of-state.
First, we need to discuss the different transport conditions that affect food quality.
What Are the Factors to Consider When Shipping Food?
Food may have an expiration date, but modern scientists have found various ways to delay it. You can ship a wide range of perishables if you know what factors affect their freshness and how to control them. Below is a list of the different carriage conditions influencing food quality.
Many unprocessed food types have only a few days before they spoil. Refrigeration can delay their decomposition by weeks or months. Meat, vegetables and fruits cannot remain fresh very long without a steady supply of oxygen. Additionally, they all contain large amounts of water, which speeds up their decay after they are harvested.
Grains, legumes, nuts and similar products may remain palatable for several months—some even years—without refrigeration. Nature simply designed them to survive long periods of nutrient scarcity.
By comparison, processed foods can stay edible for much longer periods, even under ordinary conditions. Food processing has become convenient in the modern world, as it saves cooking time for most working people.
The product’s shelf-life is a crucial factor, as the packing and shipping strategy depends on it.
The greater the distance that the product has to travel, the more time it will take to get to the consumer. Besides customer preference, consider transport distance when determining the best service class for shipping your product.
Refrigeration can delay food degradation. Additionally, frozen items are solid and, with adequate insulation and cushion, can remain intact throughout the trip. Temperature control is your friend when shipping perishables.
Moisture makes food soggy and allows harmful microbes to live and multiply. Food poisoning exposes businesses to lawsuits and, at worst, may halt their operations. You should, therefore, keep moisture out and prevent its accumulation in the parcel.
Just as oxygen helps agricultural products stay fresh longer, it also sustains oxygen-loving microorganisms, the most common causes of food poisoning. Bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus and Bacillus species, as well as fungi like Aspergillus and harmful yeasts, are some examples.
Oxygen itself can form toxic free radicals with food particles under certain conditions. Additionally, if poorly sealed, food can be exposed to polluted air during carriage, which may also ruin its quality.
Product Design and Presentation
These elements enhance your customers’ brand experience and must remain topnotch at all costs. However, intricately designed food may not survive the rumble and tumble of long-distance travel. This limits the transportability of products like fondant cakes, tall cakes, etc.
Risk of Damage During Transport
Fast-moving cargo vehicles can subject food to road impact, which can damage its appearance or packaging. Therefore, you should pack your products securely so they will get to their destination still looking fresh and tempting.
Each of these logistical issues can be addressed by the right materials and packing strategies. These will be discussed in the next section.
What Materials Can You Recommend for Shipping Food?
The packing materials you’ll need are discussed below and stated as they appear from inside to outside the parcel.
Primary Packaging (Inner Packaging)
We previously described the different packaging levels in our blog, The Advantages of Using Lightweight Packaging Substitutes. The one in direct contact with the product is the primary layer, otherwise called the “primary packaging.”
For perishable shipping, the primary packaging must be impenetrable to other substances so that its quality remains the same throughout the journey. This will also prevent fluid leaks from thawed or liquid products. While it has to be durable, this layer should also be thin enough to allow surface coolants to keep its temperature low.
Examples of primary packaging are metal for ice cream, plastic bags for seafood and shrink wrap for cakes. You can put your logo or brand colors on your primary packaging to help promote your business.
The materials most commonly used for keeping mail-order food cold are dry ice and gel packs. Both are better than ice, but for different reasons.
Dry ice is solid carbon dioxide, which always exists at a much lower temperature than ice—around -109ºF or lower—making it the superior freezing agent. Insulation delays its sublimation (gaseous transformation) by as long as 24 hours. However, dry ice is toxic and must be handled with care. It is normally used for shipping frozen food, like ice cream, meat and seafood.
On the other hand, gel packs are sealed plastic bags containing frozen mixtures of water and gelling agents. Food-grade gel packs usually contain hydroxyethyl cellulose or sodium polyacrylate, which are non-toxic. They are only slightly colder than ice, but gelling makes them stable enough to remain frozen longer than ice and dry ice.
Gel packs melt at the same temperature as ice, which is 32 ºF, and they are best used for maintaining food temperature between 32 and 60ºF. At higher temperatures, dry ice turns into gas, so it does not dampen the packaging interior. By comparison, gels remain inside their bags, so they can wet their surroundings when they start thawing. Gel packs are reusable, whereas dry ice is not.
The two insulators most commonly used for perishable shipping are thermal bubble wrap and foam. They have comparable insulation capacities but differ on costs and space-filling abilities.
When compared in terms of cost per unit area, thermal bubble wrap is three times as expensive as foam. However, it has the added advantage of filling more package space, thereby cushioning the product better. When you use thermal bubble wrap for insulation, you will need less padding for the rest of the package.
Packing foam is thinner than bubble wrap because it lacks the round air spaces on its surface. However, its price allows you to be more liberal in applying it on your packaging interior to increase its insulating capacity.
Both thermal bubble wrap and packing foam are recyclable and available as pouches, rolls, and sheets. Preformed pouches are more easily sealed than rolls and sheets, but the latter two are more flexible and can be used to increase insulation. Recyclable Styrofoam boxes are also widely available.
Filler and Liner
The filler and liner choices are the same as for non-food products. You may use bubble wrap, newsprint paper and different foam variants. Of these, bubble wrap and newsprint paper are the most commonly used.
Bubble wrap is more expensive than newsprint paper. However, it is the best choice for filling packages containing frozen or liquid food products. The non-porous plastic material keeps liquid from leaking out when it accidentally escapes the insulator, protecting the rest of the packaging.
If you’re shipping dry food at room temperature, you may fill and line the package with bubble wrap, newsprint paper or a combination of both. When you employ the right technique, you can save on costs using only newsprint paper without sacrificing parcel integrity.
Packing peanuts can serve as both insulator and filler. However, static and moisture will cause them to stick to the primary packaging’s surfaces. This may ruin the product presentation and unboxing experience. It is generally less preferred than bubble wrap and newsprint paper.
Secondary Packaging (Outer Packaging)
The secondary packaging is ideally an appropriately sized sturdy box. It should be wider than the product’s primary packaging by 3 inches on all sides to ensure adequate filling and insulating space.
FedEx recommends the use of 2-inch pressure-sensitive plastic packing tape, water-activated paper tape or water-activated reinforced tape to secure parcels. The best one to use for shipping food is pressure-sensitive plastic packing tape, which is the easiest to apply and protects best from fluid leaks.
You will need several label types for the task at hand.
Outer Shipping Label
This tag indicates the package’s destination, return address, and other important logistical information. It is ideally printed on a 4 x 6 sticker and attached to a prominent location outside the parcel.
Inner Shipping Label
This is simply a duplicate of the outer shipping label but placed unpeeled among the fillers. It ensures that the parcel will reach its recipient even if the outer box gets damaged or loses its shipping sticker. If you’re mailing multiple products a day, you can save time reproducing these tags using online postage.
You can always hand-write “Fragile” outside the parcel to cue handlers that it should be held with care. However, fragile stickers are more professional looking and make for a better product presentation. Check with your carrier if you need to pay extra for special package handling.
As in fragile stickers, you are free to write this message by hand outside the package, but again, pre-printed stickers look more business-like. This-side-up tags can be purchased ready-made, or you can make your own using sheet labels and direct thermal labels.
Imagine if you had to write “Fragile,” “This side up” and “Keep refrigerated” on all sides of the parcel just to ensure visibility. Then you also have to do it to dozens of other shipments! Not only will that be tiresome, but it will render your packages untidy. You can buy ready-made labels or print them yourself to save on costs.
So these are your options when packaging food for shipment. The next section will explain how you can use them to ensure that your product will reach customers in good condition.
What Steps Should I Take to Successfully Ship Food?
The following guide should help you ship food hassle-free to your clients:
Determine If You Can Mail the Perishable Safely
Can the product endure transport without coming undone or getting spoiled?
Cakes that can be shipped without breaking are buttercream cakes, cheesecakes, ice cream cake and those with simple designs. They just have to remain frozen throughout the journey. Most other pastries, like cookies and pretzels, can be packed like you would non-perishable fragile items.
For other edibles, the main problem is food spoilage. Temperature control is crucial for carriage.
If the product easily breaks when you touch it, it’s unlikely to survive cross-country travel in one piece. Tell your customers that you can’t ship it and offer something else.
Figure Out the Product’s Shelf-Life
All foods will rot in the mail, but it’s just a question of when. The USDA has a comprehensive list of shippable food types, with their storage temperatures and duration.
Generally, fresh meat, vegetables, seafood, frosted cake, etc. need to be kept refrigerated during carriage and consumed within a few days. Hard cheeses, dried fruits, nuts, tea and coffee may be shipped at room temperature and can stay edible for a longer time.
Find out your perishable’s shelf-life so you can pack it properly.
Check Your Carrier’s Food Shipment Restrictions
The major carriers USPS, UPS and FedEx all accept food shipments, but they may have guidelines for transporting each type. Surf their websites or call their offices regarding handling processes, service classes and rates. You might need to coordinate with them closely for bigger-volume cargo and other special shipments.
FedEx offers temperature-controlled carriage capabilities. Ask the nearest office for rates, schedules and special packing instructions.
Know the Best Delivery Time for Your Merchandise
Frozen food is ideally shipped overnight. If this is not possible, it can stay in transit for less than 30 hours, which is the estimated time for refrigerants to lose effectiveness. Ship only during the earlier parts of the week. If you do it later, your package will most likely get stuck at the carrier’s warehouse over the weekend.
Your customer may ask to have the parcel delivered to an office to avoid porch piracy. Ensure a weekday arrival and, if the product needs to remain cold, that there is enough refrigerator space at its destination.
To lower costs, you or your customer may choose non-expedited services in transporting unrefrigerated perishables.
Pack Food Only When it Is Ready
Your clients may like the look of that homemade apple pie in your online shop. It is good to eat piping hot, but this is not how you’re supposed to ship it to them. Cool it down slowly and freeze until it’s solid. Spend a few seconds shrink-wrapping it, then pack it with coolant. Give reheating instructions.
The same goes for other home-cooked perishables. Let them cool down to room temperature slowly then freeze for packing. You never mail them at higher temperatures as they can become a breeding ground for microbes.
Pack the Product Carefully and Artfully
Note that, if you’re transporting cold food, precooling the outer box, fillers and insulators lets you maximize your refrigerants’ effects. You can do this before proceeding to the steps below.
From the inside out, this is how you should pack your products:
Lock the food’s freshness in by using the appropriate primary packaging material. You can apply shrink wrap or food-grade stretch wrap on pastry, cheeses, fruits and vegetables. Place meat, seafood, and home-cooked products in sealed plastic bags, but consider vacuum-wrapping to prolong storage. Metal and hard plastic containers are acceptable for shipping ice cream, yogurt and other frozen dairies.
Make sure that no fluid leaks out when the product thaws and that it is protected from air and moisture.
Ensure maximum surface contact between the coolant and the product’s primary packaging. Food must not directly interact with the refrigerant.
If you’re using dry ice, keep these things in mind:
- You cannot ship it internationally. Make other arrangements if you’re sending food outside the US.
- Dry ice is a toxic substance, and so its domestic transport is regulated. Ask your carrier about its policies, e. g. weight restrictions, additional paperwork, etc. regarding the use of this coolant.
- Do not touch this sub-zero stuff with bare hands, as it causes ice burns.
- Leave it unwrapped when you put it in contact with the primary packaging. It turns into gaseous carbon dioxide on heat absorption, which can expand rapidly and explode inside a rigid container.
- You may be required to use dry-ice stickers on the outer box, depending on the carrier’s policies. This is to guarantee the safety of both handlers and recipients.
Wrap the product and the refrigerant with thermal bubble wrap or foam. The thicker the material used, the better is its insulating capacity. Good thermal protection allows you to use less coolant. Tape it to seal the cold in and prevent contact with the filler.
Filler and Liner
For fluids and frozen goods, line all of the outer box’s inner surfaces and corners with regular bubble wrap, making sure that it can trap accidental fluid leaks. It should not interact with the food and refrigerant, as it can heat them up.
If you’re using leak-proof insulated pouches, you can line the walls with bubble wrap and fill the rest of the space with newsprint paper. For more stable perishables, you can apply newsprint paper as both liner and filler.
To enhance the customer’s unboxing experience, you can include some colored paper in the filler. You may also insert other promotional items, such as personalized thank you cards, free recipe leaflets, product brochures, etc.
Insulators and fillers should take up 2-3 inches of space on all sides of the product. As we mentioned in a previous blog, don’t pack too tight as the fillers’ small air pockets cushion the merchandise from strong blows. Place an unpeeled shipping label inside the box before you close it.
Use pressure-sensitive plastic tape to seal the box’s top and bottom. H-pattern taping is recommended. Attach a shipping label on the most conspicuous part of the box. Put caution tags, e. g fragile stickers, etc. on all prominent sides.
Alert Your Customer When You Ship Your Perishable Item
The USDA recommends that you inform the recipient of the package’s arrival date if you know it. This gives him a chance to check the food’s delivery condition and keep it refrigerated if necessary.
If refrigerated food gets to its destination hotter than 40ºF, instruct the customer not to taste or eat it, as it may already be spoiled.
So these are the most important steps to shipping food safely. Learn them well, and you’ll be able to entice food lovers near and far and grow your business in no time!
Shipping mail-order food is a sign that business is growing, although it can be a challenge. With a little know-how, you can pack an extensive array of perishables without too many problems. We hope that our short guide here has expanded your knowledge and will be of immense value to you.
Secure Your Food Shipments with enKo Products
enKo Products helps American businesses by distributing packing and labeling materials for various retail goods. We offer the following low-cost but high-quality supplies:
- Hand stretch wrap
- Shipping and packaging supplies
- Warehouse labels
- Sheet labels
- Direct thermal labels
- Dymo labels
- Brother labels
Reinforce your food packages with enKo Products today and see the difference!