How to Ship Frozen or Cold Food

An abundant harvest or the ultimate catch is usually the first step in a supplier’s mission to provide their customers with yet another batch of high-quality goods. Knowing that your products meet high standards as they make their way to the end user can be a relief. However, this good fortune can be short-lived if things go wrong before your products reach your customers. 

This, undoubtedly, is every food supplier’s worst nightmare, regardless of the type of food item they’re delivering. Thankfully, you can prevent this if you know the ins and outs of shipping cold food. This article provides a comprehensive guide on how to ship frozen food, perishables and refrigerated items. Read on to learn more.

Common Challenges of Shipping Cold Food

The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations estimates that the world loses 14% of the food it produces. This usually occurs between harvest and retail due to several factors, including a need for proper storage. 

Unfortunately, this wastage is sometimes exacerbated when suppliers are shipping frozen food. You may face some of these challenges, too:

1. Spoilage

When shipping perishables, spoilage can occur due to improper packaging. Packing frozen or cold food items is a very in-depth process that requires proper insulation and refrigeration. This might include using multiple insulation layers and refrigerant solutions, like gel packs, to keep your products within their required temperature range and prevent spoilage.

Proper packaging can also prevent leakage and lessen the likelihood of exposure to humidity and heat.

2. Extreme Temperatures

Extreme environmental temperatures can impact the safety and quality of food shipments without proper precautions. For example, foods that are sensitive to freezing temperatures, such as dairy products, can change in texture or taste if exposed to extremely cold temperatures. On the other end of the spectrum, increased heat can also accelerate spoilage in perishable products by providing a suitable environment for yeast, microorganisms and enzymes to grow.

Cold chain shippers can mitigate the impact of environmental temperatures by strategically packing their products with refrigerants designed to meet specific temperature requirements. For instance, packing refrigerated foods with gel packs featuring lower-temperature formulations can help prevent temperature excursions when shipping in hot weather. 

3. Humidity

Humidity occurs when there is a high level of water vapor in the air, and it’s a factor worth considering when shipping moisture-sensitive foods. Similar to scorching temperatures, humidity can accelerate the spoilage of certain products, like fresh produce. Keeping your shipment airtight and cool can prevent this. Shipping perishables with a moisture-wicking gel pack, like Glacier Moisture Guard, can also help protect moisture-sensitive foods from humidity.

4. Shipping Costs

Food suppliers and direct-to-consumer businesses must contend with shipping costs — and those costs generally only trend up. The United States Postal Service (USPS) raised its Priority Mail service prices by 5.7% and its Priority Mail Express service by 5.9% in January 2024.

To help offset shipping price increases, cold chain shippers can focus on reducing package weight and choosing cost-effective refrigerant solutions. Gel packs for cold chain shipping are an attractive refrigerant option because they’re lightweight and low-cost.

5. Supply Chain Issues

Although supply chains have improved from previous years, factors like war, natural disasters and warehouse labor shortages still leave supply chains vulnerable to disruptions. Supply chain disruptions can lead to a surge in consumer demand and strain the cold chain at various points, resulting in bottlenecks and longer transit durations. Proper packaging and high-quality refrigerants can help ensure that even when there are delays, products can still make it to customers in perfect condition. 

Consequences of Breaking the Cold Chain

Although challenges with shipping refrigerated items are common, it’s important to limit them as much as possible — especially if they lead to temperature deviations and a broken cold chain. Consequences of cold chain issues might include:

1. Dissatisfied customers

Imagine a restaurant owner receiving a batch of spoiled oysters or a grocery store dealing with a sticky mess of melted ice cream. They’re two of many scenarios you risk occurring if you don’t do everything possible to avoid the challenges of shipping frozen food. 

In many cases, your standards directly affect the quality of your customers’ output. After even one shipping mishap, they may be unlikely to take additional risks by using your company again.

2. Financial Loss

Losing any customer will affect your bottom line. You’ll also need to forego payments on spoiled goods and bear the cost of them yourself. This includes losing the money you spend on procuring and shipping the goods.

Bad news also spreads fast. A poor customer experience can make it challenging to get new customers to make up for the ones you’ve lost.

3. Wastage

Food wastage is a significant issue in the United States, with over 80 million tons of food going to waste yearly. That’s approximately 149 billion meals, which equates to over $444 billion. Businesses can take the necessary steps to ensure their food items aren’t spoiled during shipping and reduce their contribution to the country’s food waste.

4. Legal Complications

The Food and Drug Administration’s website currently lists 911 recalled products. Many of them include food items. Hopefully, these items will be discarded or returned before being used or consumed. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.

Foodborne illnesses affect one in six Americans every year. That’s approximately 48 million people leading to 128,000 hospitalizations and 3000 deaths. Poor food handling practices are one of the many factors that contribute to the occurrence of foodborne illnesses.

Organizations found guilty in these cases often receive hefty fines and may even become defendants in class action lawsuits. Proper packaging can help businesses ensure their frozen or refrigerated products are safe to avoid these consequences.

5. Reputation Management

You might be able to pay the associated fines in the scenario mentioned above. You might even survive a lawsuit. However, your company’s reputation will be adversely affected in both cases, and that can be extremely hard to shake. 

It might be possible to start afresh. You can implement a marketing strategy that can help you regain your good name in the industry. But it will cost you, and there’s no guarantee it will work in the long run. It’s best to avoid putting your company in a situation that can affect your brand’s reputation. Properly packaging your frozen food items seems much easier, especially when considering the alternative.

All the consequences mentioned above could be easily avoided. You simply need to ensure you know how to ship refrigerated items.

How to Ship Frozen Food: A Step-by-Step Guide

Following a comprehensive step-by-step guide on how to ship cold food is the first step to ensuring the successful shipment of your goods and keeping your customers satisfied. Here are a few guidelines you should follow.

Wrap Foods Properly

When shipping frozen or refrigerated food items, package each item carefully. You’ll need to place each of the items in watertight plastic bags. Encasing them in bubble wrap can protect them from impact.

Some perishables may require specific packaging to maintain freshness. This might involve doubling up when bagging certain items. You may also need to consider the composition of the packaging material you use for particular food items.

Choose Well-Insulated Containers

Insulation is an essential requirement when shipping frozen food. It helps ensure the items remain frozen or cool throughout their journey. Some containers, like styrofoam shipping containers, have built-in insulation that varies in thickness. Containers with thicker insulation require less coolant or refrigerant.

You can also add insulation to sturdy cardboard shipping boxes. The options available include:

If you choose the latter option, ensure the container has enough room to hold your items and the insulation you’ll need to pack around it.

Use the Best Refrigerant Choice

An ideal refrigerant for shipping frozen food and perishables is water-based gel packs because they’re cost-effective, space-efficient and non-toxic. Their thermal properties are typically similar to water, allowing them to freeze at 32 F — or lower depending on their formulation. Gel packs are available in various sizes and formulations to meet different requirements.

In general, gel packs are used to keep food items between 32 F and 60 F. In other words, you can use them frozen, refrigerated or at room temperature to meet your product’s temperature needs. However, some gel packs, such as our Enviro Ice™ 10 F formulation, are designed to be dry ice alternatives and keep products even colder.

Gel packs keep food cold between 32 and 60

Control Melting and Thawing

Cardboard and water never mix well. If you use cardboard boxes, even if they’re sturdy and corrugated, line them with thick plastic. An absorbent mat or pad placed on the liner can provide added protection. This will help you avoid a leaky mess if your goods melt or thaw.

Of course, you reduce the likelihood of this occurring if you line your boxes with a high-quality refrigerant product. As recommended, you should also place each item in watertight plastic bags. Double bag frozen seafood items, but keep the bag open if the seafood items are alive. This allows air to enter and keeps them safe during transit.

Limit Movement

The movement of goods during transit often contributes to shipped items becoming damaged. However, you can try to keep your product more secure by packing the items in a way that limits movement. 

This includes eliminating extra space after placing the items and refrigerants in the shipping container. Materials such as packing peanuts and bubble wrap can fill any extra space and stabilize the shipment while providing padding.

Selecting gel packs that precisely fit your shipping container’s dimensions can also prevent movement while protecting products from temperature fluctuations. Our Glacier Foam Bricks, for example, provide precise shape tolerances, enabling tight pack-outs and keeping products stable.

Seal Your Boxes Securely and Label Them Accurately

Once your frozen items are secure in the shipping container, use pressure-sensitive packing tape to seal the box’s top and bottom. Then, double-check labeling requirements with your shipping company. This is important if they consider your shipment to contain hazardous items. You’ll need to label it accordingly, indicating if there are any dangerous materials inside. 

Also, review the address on every label to ensure it gets to the right customer. Accurate labeling helps the shipping company handle your items and signals to the customer if the package needs to be handled with care.

Consider Your Shipping Options

Shipping delays are sometimes inevitable. However, you can prepare for the worst-case shipping scenario by carefully considering your shipping options.

Of course, this will also depend on your customer’s location. When it comes to frozen food items, an express courier service might be the best option. Even if there is a delay, there’s a greater probability your goods will still be in good condition upon delivery when you use a faster service. 

You run the risk of spoilage by choosing standard or ground delivery services. If you use either, your items can take about a week or longer to reach their destination, which wouldn’t be suitable for frozen food items, no matter how well-insulated.

Additional Tips and Tricks for Shipping Frozen Food

There are a few food items that aren’t traditionally frozen for shipping. However, they may require a specific temperature due to unique circumstances. If this is the case, you must ensure you package them appropriately.

Fruit with shorter shelf lives fit into this category. Freezing them helps them to last until they get to their destination. Although you should pack the containers tightly, they’ll still need proper ventilation. Packing materials can also prevent them from shifting and bruising.

You’ll need to seal baked goods in airtight plastic wrap or packaging. If the items are delicate or decorated, you’ll also need to keep them from adhering to each other. Bubble wrap also helps to keep them secure once packed in the shipping container.

Frozen Food Shipping FAQs

Have questions? See our FAQs below or contact our team to learn more about our refrigerant solutions.

Yes, you can ship frozen food via mail. You must ensure that the frozen food is packaged properly and does not damage other mail. According to the USPS, you could be held liable if improper packaging of your frozen item causes damage to other mail.

While dry ice is an option for shipping frozen food, you do not need to use dry ice. For example, as mentioned earlier, Enviro Ice™ gel packs with a 10 F formulation serve as ideal dry ice alternatives when shipping frozen food. So, if you’re shipping ice cream, Enviro Ice™ can do the job.

The first step to shipping cold foods overnight is to select a carrier that offers overnight shipping. For example, FedEx and USPS have overnight shipping options. Once you choose a carrier, review their packaging requirements. Plan to pack your perishables with gel packs that meet the product’s temperature requirements.

Maintain High-Quality Standards With Pelton Shepherd

As a food supplier, you know all too well the risks involved in your industry. Shipping on time, reducing spoilage and maintaining quality are daily challenges. Although many of the factors involved may not be in your control, there are steps you can take to try to avoid them.

Knowing how to ship frozen food is one of them. It involves having appropriate packaging and insulation. Pelton Shepherd’s refrigerant solutions can help you achieve this. We provide high-quality shipping ice packs to match your unique shipping needs. 

Pelton Shepherd is a trusted refrigerant supplier for cold chain shippers. We offer multiple specialized product lines, including eco-friendly ice packs, that deliver ultimate performance and temperature control you can depend on. Contact us today to learn more about our innovative cold chain solutions.

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