Everyone loves getting packages in the mail. Especially when they're gifts of food—either homemade or from mail-order companies. Whether you are the sender or the recipient, here are some safety tips to keep in mind as you send and/or open your holiday food packages.

You rip into the holiday wrapping paper to find a holiday delicacy—an exotic, smoked game bird with a label that says "Keep Refrigerated."

Uh oh. It's been sitting in the living room for at least a week, and probably longer than that on a delivery truck. But it's smoked. Does that make it safe to eat? The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Processed Products division has the answer.

"If a product is labeled 'Keep Refrigerated,' that's a warning that not all the bacteria have been inhibited or destroyed. Refrigeration is necessary to keep the food safe to eat."

Properly refrigerated, your game bird would be safe to eat. But because it's been sitting unrefrigerated in your living room, bacteria have had plenty of time to multiply.

USDA explains that "smoked" turkeys, game, hams, and other meats are smoked for flavor, not for preservation, and must be kept refrigerated. Products labeled as country hams, however, are different. With their high salt content and dryness, they are safe at room temperature. Bacteria can't grow on them. Other gift foods—canned meats, vacuum-packed steaks, sausage, and cheese assortments may or may not need refrigeration, depending on how they were processed.

"There are several ways to process meats," according to the USDA. "Some canned meat products are heated to 250°F (121ºC), 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 therefore are not commercially sterile. These hams must be kept refrigerated."

"Vacuum packaging, while inhibiting the growth of spoilage bacteria, 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 stored in the same manner," according to the USDA.

Some sausages and cheeses in gift assortments don't need refrigeration. They are shelf-stable due to brining, drying and, sometimes, additives. Food additives are added to food during processing to prevent spoilage, protect flavor, and help prevent foodborne illness.

"Additives, together with drying and fermentation, make a processed product shelf-stable," says food scientist Robert C. Post, a branch chief in USDA's Standards and Labeling division.

What Foods Are the Safest?

  • Jams and preserves, dried fruit, nuts, candies, and canned foods that do not require refrigeration
  • Dry-cured country-style hams, beef jerky, hard salami, and other low-moisture meat products that do not require refrigeration
  • Cookies, fruit cakes, and packaged processed cheese products

Guidelines for Sending and Receiving Holiday Food Gifts

Make sure that the food product comes with storage and preparation instructions. Some mail-order food gift items are of an unusual nature and consumers may not know how to handle or prepare them.

Arrange a delivery date. Tell the recipient if the company has promised a delivery date. Or alert the recipient that "the gift is in the mail" so that they or a neighbor can be home to receive it. Otherwise, it may sit (unsafely) on the front porch or at the post office for hours, or even days. Don't have perishable items delivered to an office unless you know they will arrive on a work day, and there is refrigerator space available for keeping them cold.

When you receive a food product marked "Keep Refrigerated," open it immediately and check the temperature. Optimally, 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 you deserve a refund. Do not consume the food. It's the shipper's responsibility to deliver perishable foods on time and the customer's responsibility to have someone at home to receive the package.

Keep it cold. Refrigerate or freeze perishable foods immediately. Even if a product is partially defrosted it is safe to freeze it, although there may be a slight loss of quality.

Tips for the "Mail-It-Yourselfer"

Pack it safely. Perishable foods will stay at a safe temperature longest if frozen solid first. Then pack them with a cold source such as a frozen gel pack or purchased dry ice.

Use a sturdy box. Pack your frozen food and cold source in a sturdy box, such as heavy foam or corrugated cardboard. Fill up any empty space with crushed paper or foam "popcorn." Air space in the box will cause the food and cold source to thaw more rapidly.

Label it "perishable." Your package should be clearly labeled "Perishable: Keep Refrigerated." Arrange a delivery date with the recipient. This is not the time for surprises. Ship your package by overnight delivery.

Food and Recipe Alert!

You may want to update holiday recipes that use raw or lightly-cooked eggs, such as eggnog, to avoid the risk of foodborne illness. Even refrigerated grade-A eggs with clean, uncracked shells (those usually assumed to be safe) can be contaminated with salmonella.

Eggs must be cooked thoroughly to kill any bacteria such as salmonella. If your eggnog recipe calls for raw eggs, it's not safe. Likewise, neither is Hollandaise sauce or mousse. Don't worry about cakes, cookies and candies, though. Eggs used in baking get thoroughly cooked and reach a temperature far above that needed to kill bacteria. The exception obviously would be raw cookie dough.

Back to eggnog. Named for a small drinking vessel known as a "noggin," warm eggnog was served in colonial times to colonists who were "under the weather." Today it is a popular holiday drink traditionally made with raw eggs and served chilled, sometimes with spirits added. While adding alcohol may inhibit bacterial growth, it cannot be relied upon to kill bacteria that may be present in raw eggs.

To make safe eggnog, cook or microwave it to 160°F (71ºC), or until the egg mixture thickens enough to coat a spoon. Refrigerate it at once. When refrigerating a large amount of eggnog, divide it into several shallow containers so that it will cool quickly. Do not fold raw, beaten egg whites into the cooked mixture, because they may also contain salmonella bacteria.

Commercial eggnog, however, is prepared with pasteurized eggs and requires no cooking. Eggnog made with egg substitutes is also safe, since these frozen commercial products have been pasteurized.

Holidays are fun, but hectic. But by keeping your holiday foods safe, you'll have one less thing to worry about!