As old as modern mankind, cheese has hints of its existence dating back to 8,000 BC when the first animals were domesticated. Surviving records indicate our ancestors used animal skins and inflated internal organs as storage vessels for milk, and therefore the first cheese was likely serendipitously discovered. This method of storage brought milk into contact with rennet which separates solid milk particles from the water in milk, allowing curds cheese to form.
Today, the varieties of cheeses available are from experimentation by farmers and chemists alike using different raw materials with flavors, which allows for them to have different tastes, textures, and smells.
Similarly, each ingredient demands a different environment for production, storage, and shipping to prevent spoilage. This requires the implementation of a temperature-controlled environment to assure customers receive the quality of product they have purchased. For the purpose of this article we are going to focus on one specific area of the temperature-controlled environment: shipping.
What Does Temperature Exposure Do to Cheese?
Now, don’t get grossed out, but…cheese is one of the few foods we eat containing a high level of living, metabolizing microbes. That means, yes, cheese is actually alive! The broad groups of cheese-making microbes include many varieties of bacteria, yeast, and filamentous fungi (molds).
A report from the American Academy of Microbiology Colloquium in Washington, DC, in June 2014 states that humans have been consuming cheese microbes for centuries. Each piece of cheese we eat may contain as many as 10 billion microbes; that’s more microbes than there are people on Earth. Although considered safe to eat, these organisms are neither particularly healthful nor harmful. Nevertheless, cheese, like other foods, can become contaminated with other microorganisms, some of which may be harmful to consumers if it is improperly made or stored.
As most people know, different types of cheese can have distinct consistencies, which means some can handle temperatures better than others.
- Hard and semi-hard ripened cheeses (like cheddar to Gouda to Parmesan) have a low moisture content, making them susceptible to fungi compared to bacteria.
- Soft or fresh cheeses (like ricotta, queso blanco, mascarpone, Brie, Camembert) spoil easily due to their higher pH, moisture content, and lower salinity.
Typically, the harder the cheese, the more time it can be kept unrefrigerated. That’s why in farmers’ markets or grocery stores, you might see cheeses hanging or cut into pieces.
In addition to safety, cheese can have two major issues when exposed to temperatures outside the recommended range.
Shrinking and Stiffer Consistency: Keep your cheese below specified temperatures and quickly dry the cheese out. Removing moisture implies it will become stiffer than usual and reduce the size, affecting the product’s visual appeal.
Mold and Size Increase: Similarly, if your cheese is kept at a higher temperature for an extended period, it will deteriorate quickly and cause mold and spoilage. With additional moisture also comes a likely increase in size, causing it to tear the wrapper, decreasing its presentation.
An article in Bon Appetit said it best. “Bringing cheese to room temperature is essential to help the fat loosen up, which gives the cheese a better texture and flavor. However, there is a ticking clock on how long it should stay out past that hour (or two) out of the fridge. To keep yourself safe from bacterial growth or spoilage, you should only keep cheese out (of acceptable temperatures) for four hours max,” according to Adam Brock, director of food safety, quality, and regulatory compliance at Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin.
One thing to remember is that it is not just about the amount of time it is exposed, but the temperature (and the type of cheese).
Think About Seasons and Destinations When Planning to Ship Cheese
When shipping cheese, consider the type, the time of year, how it will be shipped, and the product’s final destination. Any of these factors can affect not only the taste and consistency but also the safety of the product.
Packaging materials such as coolers and gel packs are designed specifically for keeping products within the packaging at a consistent temperature while in transit. Winter months may not need the same amount of packaging material or gels. The hot summer season requires stocking the right products for proper packaging.
The important thing to note is that you should not just think about where you are shipping from, but where you are shipping it to and the mode of transportation. For example, shipping from Detroit to Houston may not require gels for the departure but will require them for the destination.
Also, note that refrigerated transport may be more expensive than standard shipping methods using gel packs, so pricing out temperature-controlled packaging versus reefer trailers might be more cost-effective. Refrigerated vehicles may also not be available for some rural destinations or smaller shipment sizes.
Tips for Packaging Cheese for Individual or Bulk Shipping
Cheese is composed of living organisms. It may even be considered “alive.” Keeping the good microbes alive and the bad ones out means understanding the relationship between temperature, moisture, and time.
Below are several tips we’ve found to help with packaging and shipping cheese:
For bulk and direct to consumer packaging
Bulk shipping cheese comes down to preservation and protection. Preservation prevents the growth of microorganisms and refers to maintaining proper taste and texture for consumption. Packaging preserves the product by reducing damage from shock and vibrations and by maintaining an atmosphere inside the package that assures quality, taste, texture and extends its shelf life. We recommend the following:
- Use an appropriately sized insulated container, like an EPS cooler, to assure temperature consistency over time and to secure the product from moving within the container.
- Don’t allow for air spaces between the product and the cooler walls. Use either bubble wrap or gel packs to fill the gaps. This protects the product from movement and prevents warm air from being trapped.
- Stay away from using ordinary ice as a refrigerant. It makes the temperature more challenging to regulate, and the ice will melt, potentially damaging both your box and the product.
- If this has been suggested, don’t use dry ice (and don’t freeze cheese). Dry ice takes special equipment to handle, and some carriers won’t allow you to ship via this coolant as it is considered a class 9 “miscellaneous” dangerous goods hazardous substance.
- While every cheese product is slightly different, as a general rule, use food-friendly gel packs at a weight of 2-3 pounds per five pounds of hard cheese.
- You may want to protect the ice packs to prevent cheese dampening through osmosis.
Lastly, one philosophy to follow in shipping methods is “the faster, the better.” Choose your shippers carefully. USPS Priority Mail Express or FedEx Overnight may be the fastest service, but they are also the most expensive. The longer the transit time, the more we recommend testing your shipping methods and packaging with a shipping study.
|What are you packaging it in?||Tips for Success|
|Plastic wrap|| |
|Ziploc Bags or plastic containers|| |
|Note that if feasible, vacuum-seal the cheese|