How to Keep Perishables Fresh for Shipping

Updated October 6, 2023

Raw meat, fresh fruits, ice cream, live seafood, plants and cuttings – all of it can be successfully shipped if you follow the guidelines for shipping perishable items. Temperature-sensitive items should be packaged carefully, with refrigerants or hot packs, as the case may be, and placed in insulated packaging.

If you’re worried about the packaging staying at a consistent temperature throughout shipping, you can include a temperature indicator that will let the recipient know that the perishable goods have indeed remained at a safe temperature throughout shipping. You should always label packages that contain perishable goods with special handling instructions, and ship perishables quickly to avoid spoilage.

Keep Perishables Fresh for Shipping

Use Dry Ice or Gel Packs

Most perishables that you’ll ship will need refrigerants to be kept cold, although on some occasions you may need to include a hot pack to keep the item warm. For example, if you want to ship plants in the winter, you’ll need to ship them with hot packs to keep them from sustaining cold damage. And some things, such as live bees, just shouldn’t be shipped at all in the winter.

To keep perishables cold during shipping, use frozen gel packs or dry ice. Gel packs are perfect for keeping items that need to stay chilled, but frozen, within a temperature range of 32℉ to 60℉. Wet ice isn’t recommended because it melts everywhere, and gel packs stay frozen longer, anyway. You can use dry ice to keep frozen meat, ice cream, and other frozen perishables frozen, but you should make sure that it can’t come into direct contact with the food, and you should wear thick, insulated gloves when handling it.

You can surround your perishable contents with gel packs, though it’s best to tape them to the insides of the box you’re using to keep them from shifting around and potentially crushing your perishable goods. Dry ice should go in the bottom of the box. Don’t put dry ice in an airtight container. It needs to off-gas carbon dioxide as it sublimates.

Insulate the Package

Insulate your perishables with a styrofoam shipping container. Place your refrigerant and perishables inside a styrofoam container with sides at least one-and-a-half inches thick (the thicker the sides of the styrofoam box, the longer your gel packs will last, if you’re using them). You may want to line your styrofoam box with a waterproof liner and place an absorbent pad in the bottom, if you’re shipping something that could melt or leak. If you’re shipping something that could leak, double-bag it in 2-millimeter thick plastic bags.

Include a Temperature Indicator

To make sure that your perishables remain at a consistently safe temperature throughout shipping, put temperature indicators into your packages. The temperature indicators will confirm that the goods remained at a safe temperature range while in transit.

Label the Package as Perishable

Your shipping carrier might require that you label your packages as having perishable goods inside, or include special handling instructions on the outside of the package like “Keep Refrigerated.” These special handling instructions might not make a difference to how an individual handler treats your package, but they might. If they’re not there, you have zero chance of your handler treating your package carefully because they know it contains perishable products. If they are there, you at least have a chance of getting careful handling from your carrier’s employees. They will know to ensure that it remains in the cold chain and doesn’t sit out on a loading dock in the sun, for example.

Ship Quickly

The faster your perishables arrive as their destination, the sooner they can be used, planted, or eaten, or simply removed from the packaging and allowed to run free, in the case of things like live baby birds. You should always use next-day shipping when you’re sending perishable items. If you can’t use overnight shipping, use the next fastest available option, but anything more than two days is really pushing it. Most refrigerants won’t last any longer than 36 to 48 hours, so it’s essential that you get your items delivered within that time frame.

Keeping perishables fresh throughout shipping isn’t that hard if you use the right materials and follow the right shipping guidelines. You can use insulation and refrigerants to keep things cold that need to stay cold, and hot packs to keep things warm that need to stay warm. When you’re able to ship perishables successfully, you can do business with anyone within overnight shipping range.

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