How to Ship Perishable Food

Cold Chain

Why is it important to ship perishable food items with the right packaging?

As food and grocery delivery become more popular along with overall e-commerce growth, shipping perishable items sustainably and reliably is critically important.

dad and daughter opening food delivery box

Providing optimal freshness and avoiding spoilage

When shipping temperature-sensitive food items, maintaining a controlled temperature can be a matter of health. The USDA defines the “danger zone” for bacterial growth as between 40-140°F, or 4.4-60°C. Bacteria can rapidly reproduce on food that is not kept within the correct temperature range, leading to food poisoning and illness when eaten.

Aside from the dangers presented by food that spoils and becomes unsanitary, many food items require a specific temperature to retain their ideal texture and flavor. Better tasting food is a key differentiator for businesses looking to compete online.

Preventing food waste

Food waste is a global issue. The correct packaging prevents food waste by keeping items safe to eat and protected from damage. Outside of the larger social context, delivering food that is ready to eat and free from damage prevents the need to refund orders and share replacement items.

Presenting a reliable customer experience

Customer experience is one of the most critically important differentiators for e-commerce businesses overall. In an online shopping journey, associates are no longer directly interacting with customers, and customers lack the opportunity to physically compare and select their products in a physical store. The products that arrive at their doorstep and the convenience of the journey that brought it there are typically what will make or break a relationship with a brand.

How can food temperatures be safely maintained?

Determine the correct temperature range for your product.

The right combination of insulating material and cooling materials will keep items within their proper temperature ranges during shipping. Defining the right mix of cooling and insulation will depend on the acceptable temperature range that the items can withstand the estimated transit time and the ambient temperatures. Different food types will require different temperature ranges to preserve their freshness.

General temperature ranges that are maintained for shipping perishable food items are:

Frozen (below 0°C or 32°F)

Chilled (between 2-8°C or 36-46°F)

Ambient (between 15-25°C or 59-77°F)

As a best practice, it is important to consider the external environment that products will be shipped in. For example, a route that travels through a cool or temperate climate area is likely to require less insulation than one that travels in hot conditions.

Determine your cold chain requirements  

There are three main factors to consider when determining your shipping requirements when relying on cold chain to ship perishable food.

First, it’s important to understand the weight and number of phase-change materials (PCMs) required to maintain desired temperature range. These materials are able to absorb or emit latent heat over time as they change from one state to another, meaning that they are efficient at keeping space cool. Phase-change materials include cool packs or other cooling media, such as dry ice. These can help to keep temperatures lower within a package for a longer amount of time than insulation alone. The amount of cooling materials that a product needs will vary. By testing packaging designs within a lab setting, packaging engineers can develop systems that use a precise number of cool packs, optimizing for protection and resource use.

Next, selecting the type of insulation material will allow products to remain safe from potential damage as well as safely within ideal temperature ranges. More layers or a thicker volume of insulation material are required when a product needs to be kept colder, maintain a temperature over a longer period, or both.

Finally, the internal temperature requirements are not the only factor to be considered. The expected external temperature around a package also needs to be included in this estimation.

Learn more about Ranpak Cold Chain Solutions

What kinds of businesses need to ship perishable food items?

Grocery businesses and major online retailers

Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods in 2017 was seen by many commentators as a formal announcement of the full arrival of food, beverage, and grocery into the e-commerce landscape. The global food and beverages e-commerce market is expected to grow from 2022 to 2026 with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 17.6%. The COVID-19 pandemic’s impact has also led many consumers to purchase more online, perhaps having tried grocery shopping online for the first time.

Changes in consumer habits point to a more normalized view of online food shopping overall. In fact, Ranpak and Harris Research data found that across 5 key global markets, an average of 37.6% of consumers were planning to increase their online food shopping in 2022 compared to 2021.

Subscription food and beverage services

Popular services include meal-prep kits or custom diet plans, or even fresh and healthy organic dog food. From a food of the month club to the management of dietary restrictions such as gluten sensitivity, receiving subscription food and beverages can help keep customers healthy, nourished, and entertained.

Small and medium businesses looking to expand their retail footprints

The ability to keep goods fresh in transit opens new avenues of growth for small and medium businesses. For some, being able to ensure freshness in delivery makes the difference between providing the service that their customers expect across a whole country, and losing out on key business to bigger or closer competition. A larger business footprint can be a major growth factor for some smaller specialty businesses, who naturally have a smaller clientele.

What are some common types of perishable food items for shipping?

Common types of perishable food items that are often shipped include what you might find on a typical grocery shopping list. Many specialty businesses will also ship perishable products. Being a specialty business means that shipping directly to e-commerce customers can dramatically increase business and make it easier to be discovered. Some examples of the food items that are often shipped include:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Meats and seafood
  • Frozen or chilled desserts
  • Cheese and dairy products
  • Frozen dinners and meal kits

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