Last year we received a gift in the mail and didn’t open it until Christmas Eve. The box contained cheese spreads that said “Keep refrigerated” on the label. They had been at room temperature for more than a week, so we threw them out. But since then, I’ve seen some types of cheese spreads sold at the grocery store on the shelf. Were we being overly cautious?
If the label said “Keep refrigerated,” you absolutely did the right thing. But it’s no wonder you’re confused. There are many different types of cheese and processed cheese products, and some don’t need to be refrigerated until they’re opened. It depends on several factors, including the product’s moisture content, its level of acidity, its packaging, and how it was made and processed. But a “Keep refrigerated” instruction on the label is a sure clue that the product should not be kept at room temperature for extended periods.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service offers a detailed fact sheet to help you sort out how to keep perishable foods safe when delivered over long distances. For the lowdown, go to http://www.fsis.usda.gov and search for “Mail Order Food Safety.” It includes a chart with time limits for storage of a wide variety of foods at room temperature and in the refrigerator or freezer. Among the food safety tips it recommends are:
- When a food labeled “Keep refrigerated” arrives, open it immediately and check its temperature with a food thermometer to make sure it’s 40 degrees F or lower. If it’s warmer than that, throw the food away and contact the company.
- If you’re ordering perishable food to be delivered to someone, let them know when it will arrive. Perishable foods can be sent safely if packaged and handled properly before, during and after delivery.
- If you’re sending perishable food from home, pack it in a reusable insulated cooler with enough dry ice or frozen gel packs to keep the food cold. Mark “Keep refrigerated” clearly on the outside of the box, as well as “Contains dry ice” if that’s what you’re using to warn the recipient. (Dry ice should not be touched with bare hands.) Use next-day delivery whenever possible.
For additional guidance, Ohio State University offers a food safety hotline during business hours, at 800-752-2751, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chow Line is a service of Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH, 43210-1044, or email@example.com.
Editor: This column was reviewed by Linnette Goard, food safety field specialist for Ohio State University Extension.