Dear Recyclebank: Can I use food past the expiration date? Sometimes I just don't get to eat it in time but it seems fine, and if I don't have to waste it, I'd rather not. –Frank
Dear Frank: We’ve all done the “sniff test” with that jug of milk or package of lunch meats, wondering if we’re taking a gamble by eating it when it’s past the date stamped on the package. But the truth is, those dates are often more of a guideline than a hard-and-fast rule, and knowing what they mean could help you make the most of the food you have around — a money-saver and a good way to reduce the amount of food waste you generate.
Here’s a breakdown of some of the key dates you’re likely to see in the grocery store:
- Sell By: The “sell by” date is an indication for store managers to know when to take food off the shelves, but it’s still safe to eat at home. According to WebMD, “[T]he ‘sell by’ date is the last day the item is at its highest level of quality,” and the Institute of Food Technologists, notes that one-third of a product’s shelf life is after the “sell by” date, so you can store it at home for a bit before eating it. Still, if you see foods past their “sell by” date on store shelves, let a store manager know.
- Best By: The “best by” date is for our (shoppers’) reference, and it indicates the last day that the food will be at peak quality — when it will taste its freshest, be its most flavorful, etc. The quality of the food might start to diminish after the “best by” date, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the food is no longer edible.
- Use By: Like “best by”, “use by” is for our reference. It’s similar in meaning to “best by”, in that it means that the quality of the food might start to diminish after the specified date, but it also means that the product quality is likely to decline much faster from that point on.
We spoke with author Linda Larsen, editor of the Food Poisoning Bulletin and About.com’s Busy Cooks site, to find out more about what you can safely eat after its “sell by”, “best by”, or “use by” date.
Canned foods, says Larsen, are all right to eat after the “use by” date, “Especially if you are going to use them in a recipe, such as a casserole, where the quality isn’t paramount.” When you should trash the food, however, is if the can is bulging, dented, or leaking — even if it hasn’t reached its sell by date.
Dairy products are also fine for about a week after the “use by” date, she says, and eggs are fine for a week or two after the “sell by” date as well.
But Larsen says you do need to heed the dates on the packaging for bagged, precut produce, and meats: Many types of cut produce have been linked to food poisoning outbreaks, especially Listeria monocytogenes outbreaks. “Since that bacteria can grow at refrigerator temperatures, it’s best to throw away any bagged salad, lettuce, or precut vegetables or fruit after the ‘use by’ date,” says Larsen. Better yet, compost it (when composting is done correctly, it kills pathogens). Of course, if there’s been an outbreak, it’s best to follow any food recall directions the FDA publishes.
As for meat, Larsen says that bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli are present on almost all chicken and ground meat; if you use the meat after the date, even if you cook it thoroughly, you put yourself at risk for ingesting toxins that heat doesn’t destroy.
You also need to make sure to heed the “refrigerate after opening” instructions on any package. And when a package has been opened, you should use or eat it within a few days, because the food will start to deteriorate, regardless of what the “use by” date says.
Larsen says there are certain signs that food is spoiled and could have bacteria that causes food poisoning. Don’t eat meat that smells rotten or feels slimy. If dairy products or condiments smell sour or “off”, it’s best to just pitch them. Moldy cheese, however, is not always a sign that it is unsafe to eat. On hard cheeses, you can cut away the mold with about an inch radius and eat the rest. But if you see mold on soft cheeses, throw it away – Larsen says that the mold has probably permeated throughout the whole piece.
Whole produce that’s past its prime might be able to be refreshed, says Larsen. Try putting herbs, greens, or celery in a bowl of cold water to see if you can crisp them up. If something is moldy, however, there’s not much you can do with it.
Larsen has one last word of caution: “You don’t have to throw out foods past their ‘use by’ date,” she says, “but if you are in a high risk group for food poisoning — elderly, compromised immune system, pregnant women or chronic illness, for instance — or have someone like that in your family, especially small children, play it safe and don’t use foods a week past their ‘use by date.’” As she points out, “Throwing out a can of food is less costly than a week in the hospital.”
Composting is the best option for a lot of spoiled food — you can’t donate expired food, as food banks and soup kitchens won’t accept them. If you don’t compost at home or have access to a local composting program, the unsafe foods should be headed to the landfill.
The best way to minimize the food waste that you contribute to landfills is to plan ahead. Try to only buy as much as you can eat before it goes bad, and familiarize yourself with the usual safe storage times of common foods. Eat By Date and Still Tasty both give guidelines on how long food keeps, and the best ways to store it so that it will last as long as possible without deteriorating; the USDA also provides guidelines for fridge storage of common meats. And finally, for those times you have extra food that is just on the verge of going bad, we recommend any of these 8 alternatives to the trash can.