What to know before buying food online – Cleveland Clinic

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What’s for dinner? If you need inspiration, you might be tempted to scroll through TikTok for the latest food craze. But, buyer beware. While hot food trends like this “pink sauce” grab attention, they may have you wondering about food safety. For example, is buying food online safe? And who oversees the sale of food online?

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Online food sales have grown significantly in recent years. New vendors are moving online to capitalize on the growing e-commerce market. They also use social media to promote their products and increase their sales.

“The rapid shift to online sales has created food safety challenges for individuals, businesses and government agencies,” says registered dietitian Beth Czerwony, RD. “Most foods for sale on the Internet are safe to eat. But as a consumer, it’s important to understand the basics of food safety and what to look for when buying food online.

How does the government ensure food safety?

Federal, state, and local agencies share responsibility for food safety in the United States At the federal level, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) leads food safety efforts. The role of the FDA is to:

  • Establish food safety rules and guidelines.
  • Issue reminders and alerts.
  • Regulate food manufacturing plants (except meat, poultry, and egg processing facilities, which fall under the United States Department of Agriculture).
  • Establish requirements for labelling, additives and food packaging.

State and local agencies oversee food safety in restaurants and grocery stores. They also license and inspect facilities that process food for public sale, including items sold online.

Businesses selling “homemade foods” are exempt from food safety regulations and inspections in most states. The FDA considers homemade foods unlikely to transmit foodborne illness. So you can prepare and store them at home.

Cottage food laws vary from state to state, but generally include things like:

  • Baked goods.
  • Candy.
  • Chips, crackers and pretzels.
  • Granola.
  • Pop corn.
  • Fruit preserves (fruit pies, jams and jellies).

“It’s not always easy to tell if someone selling food online is following good food safety practices,” says Czerwony. “But there are some things to look for before hitting the payment button.”

What to look for when buying food online

Shopping online isn’t as different from shopping in person as you might think. In both cases, certain signs help to establish trust in the supplier and the product. Czerwony recommends carefully considering these factors:

Product labeling

The seller must make the product label available online for you to review prior to purchase. Review the entire label, including nutritional information and ingredient list. Checking the label can tell you exactly what you’re getting.

You can also look for other clues on the product label. Inconsistencies or misspelled words can indicate problems.

Processing is an important step that ensures the stability of canned and bottled foods. Check that the seller has included instructions for refrigerating after opening. Also make sure there is an expiration date on the packaging.

Credibility of website and provider

It can be tempting to order new and interesting products, especially if they’re trending on social media. “But don’t just jump on the bandwagon,” warns Czerwony. “Do your homework first.”

Before buying, it offers you:

  • Look at the history of the seller: How long have they been in business? What other products do they sell? This information helps you assess the seller’s experience and credibility.
  • Read reviews online: Negative reviews online that raise concerns about product safety or reliability should be a red flag.
  • Purchase from a third-party supplier: Major online sellers and marketplaces (like Amazon) have policies to ensure the safety of the products they sell. They rate the products so that you feel more comfortable buying them.

Package integrity

When the product arrives, examine the packaging for leaks or swelling. These signs may indicate that the food is contaminated. When you open the package, beware if it smells bad or looks fizzy.

What are the risks of buying food online?

You could lose money if you buy food that arrives spoiled or is inedible. But the most serious risk of buying food online is that you or a loved one could get sick from eating it.

Foodborne illnesses affect 48 million people in the United States each year. For most healthy people, food poisoning can be very unpleasant but manageable. But people young, old, pregnant or immunocompromised can develop serious and life-threatening complications from undercooked or handled food.

Overall, those risks are low, says Czerwony. “Most online vendors are reputable and the food they sell is perfectly safe to eat,” she says. “But beware of sleazy vendors who are unaware of safe food handling procedures or who choose not to follow them.”

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