Can I Eat This? A Quick Guide to Expiration Dates and Food Safety

by Carrie Kirby on 16 December 2013 2 comments

Forty percent of the food that's produced in America is wasted — by farmers, stores, restaurants, and consumers. Americans tend to throw out 15% to 25% of the food we buy, wasting $2,000 a year or more, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Part of the problem is misleading date labeling on food packages, which leads consumers to trash items that are still perfectly safe and wholesome. A study in the United Kingdom found that up to 20% of household food waste is linked to "date labeling confusion," according to the NRDC's report. (See also: 21 Shocking US Food Waste Stats)

Date Confusion

Do you automatically toss anything in the fridge or cupboard if the date on the label is in the past? Then you, too, are unnecessarily wasting food. (See also: Turn Your Trash Into Holiday Food)

The United States Department of Agriculture allows manufacturers to stamp several types of dates on products: "sell by," "best if used by (or before)," or "use by."

But what do these dates really mean? According to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, "Except for 'use-by' dates, product dates don't always pertain to home storage and use after purchase. 'Use-by' dates usually refer to best quality and are not safety dates. Even if the date expires during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality if handled properly."

So if the so-called expiration date doesn't tell you whether a food is still safe to eat, what guidelines can you use? Here are some pointers for determining the safety and quality of specific foods.

Eggs

The USDA says that as long as eggs have been refrigerated, you can eat them up to five weeks after purchase. "The 'sell-by' date will usually expire during that length of time, but the eggs are still perfectly safe to use," according to the USDA FSIS site. (See also: 10 Facts About Eggs)

Besides the "sell by" date, egg cartons have a "pack date" that can tell you when the eggs were placed in the carton. This is a three-digit Julian date that you should see above the sell-by date. In Julian dates, January 1 is 001 and Dec. 31 is 365. Most experts recommend eating the eggs within five weeks of the pack date.

Test Your Eggs

If you're still uncertain, you can also test your eggs for freshness. Before cracking them, you can use the float test. According to EatByDate.com, "A good egg will sink to the bottom and stay there on its side. An egg that stands with its larger side up is older, but the egg is still good. If the egg floats or hovers, then bacteria has broken down proteins in the egg whites and created gasses, an indication that the egg is probably unsafe to eat." After cracking the eggs, look at the whites — pinkish color is bad, clear or white is good. And of course if they smell bad, throw them away.

Raw Poultry, Ground Beef, Organ Meat, or Sausage

The USDA recommends cooking or freezing these within one to two days after purchase, or by the "use by" date if it has one — not by the "sell by" date. EatByDate.com suggests you can use these meats one or two days past the sell-by date.

Raw Veal, Beef, Pork, or Lamb

The USDA recommends cooking or freezing within three to five days after purchase. EatByDate.com recommends eating within one or two days of sell-by date.

Lunch Meat

The USDA says you can keep an unopened package of lunch meat in the fridge for two weeks after purchase, no matter what the sell-by date. After you open it, eat or freeze within three to five days. EatByDate.com suggests that packaged deli meat lasts 7 to 10 days past the sell-by date in the fridge, whether opened or not. (See also: Quick and Cheap Lunch Ideas)

Canned Meat or Poultry

This can sit in your pantry for up to five years, USDA says. EatByDate gives the same advice for Spam and canned tuna.

Butter

A month past the sell-by date in the refrigerator, or 6 to 9 months in the freezer, according to StillTasty.com. (See also: 24 Unusual Uses for Butter)

Milk

One week past the sell-by date in the coldest part of the refrigerator (away from the door), or three months in the freezer, according to StillTasty.com.

We are all familiar with the attributes of milk that's been in the fridge too long — sour taste and disgusting lumps. But does that mean it's dangerous or just unpleasant? According to HealthLine Health News, "While the bacteria that causes milk to turn sour and spoil can cause food poisoning and be dangerous for young children or those with compromised immune systems, it is unlikely that drinking spoiled milk could kill an adult." There is lots of advice online for using up milk that is only slightly sour, such as putting it in pancake batter.

Dry Foods

"Some low-moisture foods such as dried apples can be safe to eat even years after their expiration date, if properly stored," Science Daily reports in an article that describes a taste test of decades-old dried milk, rolled oats, and dried apples. Only some of the food, which was stored in sealed containers, still tasted good, but it would work in an emergency. (See also: Organize Your Pantry and Save Cash)

Crackers

StillTasty.com says that unopened crackers can sit in a dry cool cupboard for 6 to 9 months without going stale or for about a year in the freezer. And even beyond that, if they are not moldy, they should be safe — just not necessarily as crunchy as you like them.

Baby Formula

This is a special case, because nutrients in baby formula can break down over time, resulting in a food that lacks adequate nutrition. Because of this, federal law requires a "use by" date on infant formula. Follow it.

Don't forget that all these dates are for using or freezing food. According to the USDA, "Once a perishable product is frozen, it doesn't matter if the date expires because foods kept frozen continuously at 0 degrees fahrenheit are safe indefinitely." Texture of foods may change during long freezing times, but they will not spoil in the freezer.

Anything I've missed? What else is good past its expiration date?

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Guest's picture

We often use foods that are past their "use by" date. No big deal. The things that cause us to throw out food are the appearance of mold, sour milk taste, change in color, or the floating egg test.

Guest's picture

I dump the milk the day before the use-by date -- won't even risk trying it and having that sour taste linger in my mouth. But we've kept eggs in the fridge for MONTHS and never had any problems ...