October 6, 2022

Buying Food Online Is Convenient, but Is It Safe? What Experts Say

Check reviews, check labels and double check packaging

Homemade canning of assorted vegetables displayed on a natural wooden table.

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

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Online food sales have increased dramatically in recent years. New vendors are setting up shop online to capitalize on the growing e-commerce market. They’re also using social media to promote their products and boost sales.

“The rapid shift to online sales has created food safety challenges for individuals, companies 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 purchasing food online.”

How does the government ensure food safety?

Federal, state and local agencies share the task of ensuring food safety in the U.S. At the federal level, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) leads food safety efforts. The role of the FDA is to:

  • Establish food safety rules and guidelines.
  • Issue recalls and alerts.
  • Regulate food manufacturing plants (except meat, poultry and egg processing facilities, which fall under the U.S. Department of Agriculture).
  • Set requirements for food labeling, additives and packaging.

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

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

Cottage food laws vary from state to state, but they generally include items such as:

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  • Baked goods.
  • Candy.
  • Chips, crackers and pretzels.
  • Granola.
  • Popcorn.
  • Preserved fruit products (fruit pies, jams and jellies).

“It’s not always easy to know whether someone selling food online is following proper food safety practices,” says Czerwony. “But there are some things to look for before you click the checkout button.”

What to look for when buying food online

Shopping online isn’t as different from in-person shopping as you might think. In both, some signs help establish trust in the vendor and product. Czerwony recommends looking closely at these factors:

Product labeling

The seller should make the product label available online so you can review it before purchase. Look over the entire label, including the nutritional information and ingredients list. Checking the label can tell you exactly what you’re getting.

You can look for other clues on the product label, too. Inconsistencies or misspelled words could point to troubles.

Processing is an important step that makes canned and bottled foods shelf-stable. Check that the vendor has included instructions to refrigerate after opening. Also, make sure there’s an expiration date on the package.

Website and vendor credibility

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

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Before purchasing, she suggests you:

  • Look at the seller’s history: 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 the online reviews: Negative online reviews that report concerns about the safety or reliability of the product should be a red flag.
  • Purchase from a third-party vendor: Larger online vendors and marketplaces (such as Amazon) have rules to ensure the safety of the products they sell. They evaluate the products so you can feel more at ease purchasing them.

Package integrity

When the product arrives, examine the package for leaks or swelling. These signs might indicate the food is contaminated. When you open the package, be suspicious if it smells off or seems fizzy.

What are the risks of buying food online?

You might lose money if you buy food that arrives spoiled or is otherwise 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 U.S. each year. For most people who are healthy, food poisoning can be highly unpleasant but manageable. But people who are young, old, pregnant or immunocompromised can develop severe, life-threatening complications from food that was cooked or handled improperly.

Overall these risks are low, says Czerwony. “Most online sellers are reputable, and the food they sell is perfectly fine to eat,” she says. “But watch out for shady vendors who don’t know about safe food handling procedures or choose not to follow them.”

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