Shipping Drums - Decoding Packing and Shipping Food Regulations

Shipping drums may not be the most common method of packaging items for overseas shipping,  however, they are still very useful and versatile in certain shipping situations and for some particular types of cargo. These drums are typically filled to the brim, making them an excellent choice for shipping heavier types of cargo.

 Often, these barrels are used for food, items of clothing and dry goods. Today, it’s not uncommon to find barrels filled with liquids, such as oil.

In many cases, drums are selected as the shipping container of choice because they are much more effective at protecting cargo from water and moisture than other types of commercial shipping boxes. Additionally, they are easier to move around because of their cylindrical shape, which allows them to be rolled. This comes in handy when unloading and loading items from a ship’s deck.

There are specialist shipping companies where you could find a 55-gallon drum for around $50. It’s also possible to find used drums at a lower cost. Use caution, however, when purchasing used drums, as they could potentially have traces of hazardous materials from what was previously stored in them.

What Can Be Packed in a Shipping Drum

It’s important to know what type of items can be stored in your drums. Failure to comply with customs and industry regulations of your country and the country you’re shipping to can cost you  in terms of fines and customs taxes. Shippers in the United States or those who are shipping to the United States also need to be aware of the Food & Drug Administration’s (FDA) regulations regarding containers for food products.

If you’re wanting to use drums, it’s essential to understand which materials are food-safe. Food-safe materials are those that are approved by the FDA.

These materials are also known as food contact substances (FCS). They include certain types of plastics, metals and other materials.  The FDA defines food contact substances as “any substance that is intended for use as a component of materials used in manufacturing, packing, packaging, transporting or holding food.”

With the variety of materials that shipping drums are manufactured from, it’s possible to find one that’s made from an approved FCS. It would also be very helpful to check the customs websites of the countries you’re shipping to, so you can prevent a scenario where prohibited items get shipped.

Decoding Important Regulations 

When it comes to shipping liquids and chemical materials, shipping drums are probably the most efficient way to go. Shipping drums are designed to withstand reactions to the chemicals and liquids stored within them, ensuring the contents are received in the same condition they were shipped in. Steel drums that are sold must meet UN standards. They must also be tested to meet IMO, IATA, and D.O.T. CFR-49 protocols, if they will be carrying hazardous materials. For anyone involved in shipping, understanding the UN ratings for drums is critical to staying compliant. If you work with drums, you may have noticed a code embossed or printed on a “UN rated” plastic or steel drum. They usually look like the below inscription:


So, what does this code mean? Well, the US Dot/PHMSA in accordance international shipping agreements requires that packaging meet specific construction and testing standards. This type of packaging is commonly referred to as UN approved, UN packaging or POP (performance oriented packaging). A marking like the one listed above would be printed or embossed on a package indicating that the container meets all construction, testing requirements, and standards.

The numbers and letters in the marking all indicate important information about a package. Every section separated by the “/” symbol refers to a different bit of information about the container. 

First Section: Specifies the type of container, material and type of head.

The number determines the container type. In our above example, (1A2/Z65/S/13/USA/M4990), the ‘1’ stands for drum.

6=Composite packaging

The letter A specifies what material the container is made of. Here it is steel.

C=Natural Wood
F=Reconstructed Wood
M=Paper, multi-wall
N=Other metal
P=Glass, Stoneware, Porcelain,

This final number, 2, specifies the type of head on the container and it is unique to drums – in this case, being an open head.

1=Closed Head (non-removable)
2=Open Head (removable)

Put it all together and the full example package listed above is a 1A2 which makes it an open head, steel, drum.

Second Section: Specifies the Packaging Group AND Gross Mass.

This section will always begin with X, Y, or Z, highlighting the hazard level limit of the container.

X=High Hazard, Packing Group I, II, or III
Y=Medium Hazard, Packing Group II or III
Z=Low Hazard, Packing Group III only

The following number specifies the maximum gross mass in kilograms that the container can hold for solids.

Our example shows “Z65”. Therefore, this container can hold up to 65 kgs. (143 lbs.) of packing low hazard, group III materials only.

Third Section: “S” Refers to Solids.

The letter S shows that this container can be used for both solids or liquids packed in inner packages. This container can’t be used for free liquids.

If the S is absent, the container is designed only to hold liquids. The number from the following section specifies the maximum specific gravity of the liquid to be contained.


Final Sections.


Fourth Section – Year of manufacture (2013)

Fifth Section– Country of manufacture (USA)

Sixth Section– Manufacturers code: unique to manufacturer or certifying agency (M4990)

Using the proper shipping drums helps ensure that you not only comply with regulations but also improves the safety of the contents and the workers who handle them.

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