How to Ship Food: The Complete Guide for Businesses

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The global online food delivery market is projected to hit $200 billion by 2025. But while food delivery becomes more and more commonplace, a major challenge is shipping food—specifically, perishable food—to customers efficiently. 

A safe, fast, and efficient way to ship food protects you against loss of products, money, and customers. It’s not always easy, but going about food logistics the right way is essential to breaking into and keeping up with this booming industry. In this article, we will give you a step-by-step guide on how to ship food.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

Use Packing Materials Designed to Keep Food Safe and Fresh

Extreme temperatures and humidity can hasten food spoilage for perishable items. That’s why it’s important to ship food products in packaging materials that will keep your food fresh at any temperature.

Before you ship any food product, you should check their recommended storage times to prevent spoilage. The Food Safety and Inspection Service has an extensive chart that shows the ideal storage time for different foods before they risk spoilage and contamination. 

Also, your packing materials must be strong enough to ensure that food gets to the customer damage-free and ready to eat.

Here are some of the commonly used packaging materials for perishable foods:


Glass has always proven to be a safe way to pack food and beverages. It’s the only food packaging material that doesn’t need premarket approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US. It is impermeable, which allows it to protect harmful chemicals from getting into your food or drinks while shipping. It is also 100% recyclable and is made from natural materials.

However, glass comes with a few downsides. It’s heavy, which makes it expensive to ship. It’s also fragile and, if it shatters, it can be quite dangerous. This means glass also needs to be bubble-wrapped so it can withstand impact while shipping to your consumer without breaking.

Food-Grade Plastics

Food-grade plastics are bacteria-resistant, which makes them an ideal material for packaging foods. In addition, unlike glass, they’re extremely lightweight, which makes them very easy and inexpensive to transport.

Food-grade plastics can withstand extremely hot and cold temperatures. They do a great job at protecting your food or beverage from debris, oxygen, and moisture. However, when you’re using food-grade plastics for transport, make sure they aren’t exposed to extreme heat for long periods of time, as this can cause chemicals like bisphenol-A (BPA) to be released in your products. While BPA in food-grade plastics hasn’t been proven to cause harm to adults, the compound itself has been linked to breast cancer

Different types of plastics can be used to transport different foods. Some common food-grade plastics are:

  1. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) – It’s one of the most common types of food-grade plastics, and it’s used to transport beverages because it “repels microorganisms and doesn’t corrode.”
  2. High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) – Another common food-grade plastic used for bottles, containers, and cereal box liners. 
  3. Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE) – Similar to HDPE, but less rigid. It’s typically used as a packaging material around PET and HDPE packaging, like packaging films, bubble wraps, etc. It’s “not deemed safe for food contact in a recycled state.”

AC Plastics has a comprehensive breakdown of the different food-grade plastics that are FDA-approved.

Plastic water bottles are often made with PET plastics. Photo by Steve Johnson from Pexels

Insulated Shipping Containers (Styrofoam)

Insulated foam containers are typically made of polystyrene, better known as Styrofoam. Polystyrene is a lightweight foam that’s resistant to bacteria, water vapor, and mold. In addition, it prevents your food products from moisture and has a high thermal resistance.

Insulated shipping containers can be recycled and put to use again. They can also come in different thicknesses. However, keep in mind that the cost of each insulated container gets more expensive as the thickness of its insulation wall increases.

In addition to these packing materials, you might also want to consider using bubble wrap and plastic wrap in your cardboard boxes to reduce empty spaces and avoid damage to your food items during shipment. This article provides a few more ways to warehouse your food products.

Choose an Appropriate Preservation Method

Once you’ve decided on the type of packaging that fits your specific food product, the next line of action is to find an appropriate way to keep it cool before shipping.

Here are the two major preservation methods to consider:

Ice Packs

Ice packs, or gel packs, are portable plastic bags filled with water or refrigerator gels. They’re used as cooling agents to preserve goods while shipping. Ice packs are a cost-effective solution you can use to keep your shipments cold while shipping. They are readily available, and they can be used more than once.

Ice packs can last up to 24 to 36 hours, depending on how well insulated your shipment is. They can preserve your goods between 2 to 8 degrees Celsius

Ice packs can come in different sizes. They freeze at a lower temperature than ice, which makes them ideal for shipping temperature-sensitive goods. In addition, they’re ideal for goods with minimal transit time.

Dry Ice

Dry ice is solid carbon dioxide that forms a frozen block. It has a surface temperature of -109.3 degrees Fahrenheit, making it perfect for shipping frozen food products. When it hits that temperature, it changes from solid to gaseous state in a process known as sublimation.

However, dry ice is considered a hazardous material. It releases carbon dioxide, which can build up pressure. Wrapping dry ice or using airtight containers or transport may cause it to explode. For precautionary measures, it’s advisable to label the outside of the box that contains any amount of dry ice.

Find an Efficient and Reliable Shipping Method

Having a fast, effective, and efficient shipping method is very important while shipping perishable products. Depending on a number of factors (including the size of your company), you may opt for third-party shipping solutions or establishing an in-house shipping operation. 

Third-Party Logistics (3PL) Companies

When you use a third-party logistics (3PL) company to ship your products, you outsource shipping and fulfillment to an external party. This company will receive your food products once packaged and ship them to your customers. 
Some major third-party logistics companies you can consider are USPS, UPS, and FedEx.

One major downside of using a 3PL provider is that you have little to no control over shipping and fulfillment.

If there are any issues during delivery, you sacrifice control over resolving them and risk disappointing your customers. 

In-House Delivery

In-house delivery means you own and manage your own shipping operation, giving you full control over shipping and fulfillment. As a result, you cut out the middleman and also get the chance to interact with your customers. 

While this option may seem overwhelming compared to pre-existing solutions, consider that relying on 3PL solutions can also eat into your profits over time as your shipping costs grow. For example, in August 2020, FedEx announced a new surcharge of $52.50 for every oversized package sent through its ground, express, or international services. While in-house delivery requires more upfront investment, it gives you more flexibility and is cheaper in the long run than contracting third-party logistics providers.

How OptimoRoute Can Help You Offer In-House Delivery

If you’re managing deliveries in-house, you need route planning and optimization software to streamline your delivery process. By using a route optimization software like OptimoRoute, you can easily:

  • Automate recurring tasks: Instead of trying to track inventory or manage orders manually, you can automate this process to save time, fulfill orders efficiently, and reduce human error.
  • Find fast and effective delivery routes: You can easily import orders to find the most efficient routes for delivery which will, in turn, save time and reduce mileage
  • Record deliveries with Proof of Delivery: This feature allows your delivery drivers, technicians, and all other field staff can gather a range of relevant information — like signatures, photos and notes — in real time via the OptimoRoute Mobile App. Our fully custom mobile forms with multiple fields or checklists allow you to gather the information that you need from customers in the manner that you would like. 
  • Combine delivery and pickup in the same route: OptimoRoute also plans routes by accommodating different vehicle types. So if your fleet has a mix of refrigerated trucks, flat-bed and pallet based vehicles, it can automatically factor the capacity constraints of each vehicle to design the most efficient route. 
  • Get updates in real-time: OptimoRoute allows you to keep track of your drivers, know their estimated time of arrival. Not only that, you can provide customers with Live ETAs so they can see where their orders are and plan for their arrival. In addition, all their shipping information is shared via email and text, which is useful if they’re placing multiple orders with you over time. 

Start Shipping Fresh Food With OptimoRoute Today

With OptimoRoute, you can ship fresh food without compromising its quality and without relying on third-party logistics. You can streamline your in-house delivery system to monitor inventory, track orders, find fast delivery routes, and provide a great and satisfactory customer experience without any hassle. 

To get started, try OptimoRoute for free today!

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