Most people assume that a company that sends perishable food items by mail knows the best way to pack and ship the goat cheese or, let's say, Cajun sausage. Apparently, some do and some don't. Take the case of the past-its-prime pork.

Recently we received a shipment of sliced bacon. The smoked product arrived in a cardboard box packed with a few wadded balls of brown paper. There was no frozen gel pack or insulated foam box. The bacon was at room temperature. The label on the bacon clearly read--"Keep Refrigerated." We wondered: Is this stuff safe to eat?

That's when we called Diane Van, project manager for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Meat and Poultry Hotline.

"That bacon should not be consumed. It should arrive as cold as if it just came out of the refrigerator," said Van. The hot line receives hundreds of such calls from consumers this time of year, the busiest season for mail-order food gifts. She passed along this advice on mail-order food safety:

Tips for the Purchaser

Speedy Delivery: Ask the company how the food will be mailed. If it's a perishable item, it should be delivered as quickly as possible--ideally, overnight. Make sure items and the outer package are labeled "Keep Refrigerated" to alert the recipient.

Storage and Preparation Instructions: Ask for them. Some items are of an unusual nature, and some consumers may not know how to handle or prepare them.

Arrange a Delivery Date: Alert the recipients to the delivery date, if one has been promised, so that they or a neighbor can be home to receive the package. Don't have perishable items delivered to an office unless you know they will arrive on a workday and there's refrigerator space for keeping the food cold.

Tips for the Receiver

Check the Temperature: Open a box marked "Keep Refrigerated" immediately and check its temperature. Optimally, the food should arrive frozen or partially frozen with ice crystals still visible, or at least, refrigerator-cold to the touch. If perishable food arrives warm, notify the company. Do not consume the food. It's the shipper's responsibility to deliver perishable food safely packaged and on time, the customer's responsibility to have someone at home to receive it.

Keep It Cold: Refrigerate or freeze perishable items immediately even if the product is partially defrosted.

Tips for the Mail-It-Yourselfer

Pack It Safely: Perishable foods will stay at a safe temperature longest if frozen solid first. Pack your food gift with a cold source such as a frozen gel pack or dry ice.

Use a Sturdy Box: Use a heavy foam or corrugated cardboard box. Fill up any empty space with crushed paper or foam "popcorn." Air space in the box will cause the food and cold source to thaw faster.

Label It Perishable: Write "Perishable--Keep Refrigerated" on the box, arrange a delivery date with the recipient, ship the package by overnight delivery.

The USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline number is 1-800-535-4555.