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Online Vendors of Meat and Seafood: How it Arrives

Wow!  Look at the great price from this online meat place for all this.  Let’s order some.

Ordering perishable meat and seafood online is becoming increasingly popular. However, there are no standards for packing and shipping these items.  While usually packed in coolers with cold packs or dry ice, they are transported, stored and delivered in the same manner as non-perishable items. This means these packages may be subject to temperature abuse.

A team from Rutgers University and Tennessee State University recently evaluated over 650 samples of raw meat, poultry, finfish and shellfish products and reported  on the shipping methods and materials, coolants, and the product temperatures and conditions upon arrival.  Their paper was presented at the International Association for Food Protection in Indianapolis, IN in August 2014.  The study was published in the Mar/Apr 2015 issue of Food Protection Trends  magazine.

Some highlights from the study:  There were 169 shipments and 684 food items tested. That included 9 replacement items. The majority of the orders were shipped via FedEx or UPS.  36% were shipped “overnight” and 29% were “2-day”, and 27% were “standard/ground” shipping. Most of the packages arrived intact, but others had leakage or damage.

Ninety-three percent arrived in a polystyrene box, but only 37% had dunnage (packing material to fill empty spaces).  Dunnage is important to keep items from shifting and reduces the amount of air that needs to stay cold. These can be newspaper, packing peanuts and bubble wrap.  Coolants included gel packs, wet ice and dry ice. Four percent of the packages had no coolant at all. Of the packages that contained dry ice, less than half (36%) provided safety information regarding the safe handling and disposal.

Some examples of the food items ordered: Meat included beef, lamb and pork.  Poultry. Game included bison/buffalo, deer, elk, duck and ostrich.  Seafood included salmon, tuna, lobster tail and crab legs.

The majority of the items were shipped frozen with 21% shipped fresh.  Ten surface temperatures were taken of each product, top and bottom. Temperatures ranged from -23.5°F to 75.0°F.

Conclusion:  More than one third of the products arrived with a mean temperature above 40°F and almost half arrived with at least one temperature above 40°F.   There was no consistency in the packaging methods, materials and dunnage used and a large variability in the types and amount of coolants used.

Their recommendations include the development of standards to be used by the packers and the common carriers.  “At a minimum, guidance for online purveyors of perishable food products concerning best practices for shipping would be helpful to improve food safety.”