Many people choose to send perishable foods as gifts during the holidays, and a Texas AgriLife Extension Service expert has offered some tips on keeping them safe.

"Meat, poultry, fish and other perishable foods need to be handled carefully and in a timely manner in order to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria which could cause foodborne illness," said Dr.Connie Sheppard, AgriLife Extension agent for family and consumer sciences in Bexar County.

According to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 76 million cases of foodborne illness are reported each year.

"Perishable food items sent during the holidays and other times of the year need to be handled properly," Sheppard said. "First, they must arrive cold as a main indication that they're safe to eat."

Sheppard said a perishable food gift that is not cold when it is received should not be eaten.

"Instead, notify the sender, so they can decide what to do about replacing it," she said. "It's better to be safe than sorry."

Food gifts marked "perishable" or "keep refrigerated" need to be opened immediately and placed in the refrigerator or freezer, Sheppard said.

"If you are ordering food gifts, specify overnight delivery and request a frozen gel pack or dry ice in the packaging," she said. "Transit time and product packaging in foam or heavy cardboard that is designed to keep food items cold are also vital factors when sending food gifts."

She said foods prepared at home may also be shipped to friends and family, but care is required with those foods as well.

"First, be sure to follow proper food safety procedures such as hand washing and avoiding cross contamination when preparing foods," she said. "Once you are ready to ship the foods, make sure the items are frozen solid or refrigerator-cold prior to shipping. Pack in an insulated cooler or heavy cardboard box with a frozen gel pack."

Sheppard said dry ice also can be used, but to avoid letting it touch hands or food items.

"Let the recipient know the box contains dry ice," she said. "Wrap the box in two layers of brown paper and mark that it contains perishable goods and to keep them refrigerated."

Sheppard said to ship perishable food gifts by overnight mail and try not to send packages at the end of the week because delivery could be delayed.

"Be sure to contact recipients to let them know a food-bearing package is on its way so someone can be home to accept delivery and get the food under refrigeration immediately," she said. "It's best to send food gifts to someone's home. If you send them to a workplace, the food could be accidentally left at the office or in the trunk of the recipient's car."

For more information on mail-order food safety, contact your local county AgriLife Extension office or visit http://www.fsis.usda.gov/factsheets/Mail_Order_Food_Safety/index.asp.