How to Ship Perishable Food Online for Small Businesses

Who wants to go to the grocery store, wander the aisles, and wait in a checkout lane when you can have your food delivered right to your door? Today, shipping perishable items has become very popular, with a global survey of shoppers by International Data Company (IDC) revealing that 35% of shoppers will spend more than 25% of their grocery budget online this year. 

Of course, it’s not just big supermarkets and subscription services selling their wares online; today, many small businesses are competing by offering their perishable food products online too. If you’re considering selling perishables online, here are some things you’ll want to know. 

What is a Perishable Item?

According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), perishable items are “those likely to spoil, decay, or become unsafe to consume if not kept refrigerated at 40 °F or below, or frozen at 0 °F or below.” Examples of foods that must be kept refrigerated for safety include:

  • Meat
  • Poultry
  • Fish
  • Dairy products
  • Cooked leftovers 

Refrigeration slows bacteria, but it’s important to understand that there are two different types of bacteria:

  • Pathogenic bacteria that cause foodborne illness
  • Spoilage bacteria that cause foods to deteriorate and develop unpleasant odors, tastes, and textures. 

Can I Sell Perishable Items Online?

Selling perishable foods online is not a new concept, but it’s only recently become very popular. In 2000, just before the dot-com bust, grocery delivery services such as Webvan began popping up but they weren’t too well received. In 2012, however, virtual food shopping really took off with the founding of Instacart, a service that sends shoppers to local stores to pick out groceries that consumers order online, and DoorDash, which delivers perishables from fast-food restaurants.

Today, with advances in cold warehousing and delivery, online food shopping is big business. In addition to services like Instacart, consumers order perishables from subscription box services like Hello Fresh and Blue Apron and direct deliveries from major supermarkets like Publix and Walmart. And of course, there’s Amazon.

Now, it’s possible for just about anyone to sell perishable items online – including home-based businesses. BigCommerce recently put together a list of 16 eCommerce food and beverage brands bringing perishables online with outstanding sites that attract and convert shoppers (check out the list here). 

What You Need to Know About Selling Perishable Items Online

It’s one thing to sell books or clothing online, it’s another to sell beef jerky or cheesecake! Things can go wrong when shipping perishables, causing products to arrive melted or spoiled. So, it’s important to go about it the right way. 

If you’re already selling perishables from a store, restaurant, or food truck and want to compete through online ordering, you likely have the necessary certifications and permits already. If you’re simply selling perishables from home, you’ll need to follow a few basic requirements. These can vary by state, but the following is likely necessary to be in compliance:


  • An annual kitchen inspection from the health department
  • Zoning clearance and appropriate permits from local government
  • A state business license
  • A pet-free kitchen environment
  • Proper storage of cold and dry ingredients

If you have questions, you may want to reach out to your state branch of the Department of Agriculture and your local health department for more information about what laws you need to comply with as a home-based perishable food seller.

Six Considerations for Shipping Perishable Goods

The USDA has a number of recommendations for businesses shipping perishable items, especially those intending to ship refrigerated food.

1. Pack with a Cold Source

Products should arrive to customers at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s important to remember that your box will be at room temperature for transport, and it could ride on a hot delivery truck for hours or get sorted in a warm facility. To achieve the desired temperature, dry ice or frozen gel packs will be necessary.

2. Use Sturdy Packaging

Packaging is key to ensure the safe arrival of perishable foods. To keep products insulated and to hold up against heavy dry ice or frozen gel packs, thick foam or heavy corrugated cardboard packaging is a must.

3. Clearly Label Packaging

Be sure to write “Keep Refrigerated” on the outside of your package in a permanent marker, or create or purchase labels. This is not just for the customers’ benefit, but also to make your shipping partner aware of the contents of the package so they can prioritize it. When using dry ice, be sure it doesn’t come into direct contact with food and clearly mark on the outside of the package that it contains dry ice.

4. Notify Customers of Expected Arrival

This is a good practice for any product shipment, but especially for perishables. If customers know when the package is arriving, they can plan to be home in order to safely store the perishables or make other arrangements.

5. Time Your Delivery

It’s recommended that you do not send packages at the end of the week unless you’re overnighting, otherwise, they could wind up sitting at a post office or mailing facility over a weekend. You should also not send perishables to a business address where someone may not be available to receive them or where there may not be adequate refrigerator storage.

6. Create a Clear Customer Policy

Following the above tips should help ensure your perishables arrive safely and in good condition, but the nature of perishable goods means there’s always the potential for spoilage. Be sure to be clear with customers on how you’ll handle refunds or replacements if their product arrives in poor condition. We recommend posting your policy online and including a copy with your shipment so there is no confusion.


Online food ordering and delivery is more popular than ever, and while it may not be as simple as sending a non-perishable item, today’s methods of shipping have made it easier than ever. If you’re a small business with a great product or are just thinking about selling your homemade goods online, be sure to follow the considerations we’ve discussed here – and remember to contact your local USDA state branch or health department with any questions – and start competing with the big players!

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