The refrigerator and cupboard are full of food, but I don't dare eat any of it. The yogurt expired yesterday, the bread the day before and that package of deli ham? According to the date stamped on the package, it went bad last week.
I won't eat food after its expiration date has passed. But in my house, I'm the minority. I live with people who have no qualms about noshing on year-old canned goods or outdated cereal. And now that I consider their questionable habits, I realize they've never been the worse for eating ancient fare.
What do those little numbers stamped on food packaging really mean? I consider them warning signs, helping me avoid eating expired food that would otherwise make me sick.
The truth is, all those dates stamped on the food you buy don't have anything to do with the safety of its consumption. You might see one of the following dates stamped on a product you buy:
Sell-by date: This date is actually meant for retailers, not consumers. It instructs retailers how long to display the product on store shelves and is for marketing purposes.
Best-by date: This is the date at which the manufacturer believes the food will reach its peak of freshness or flavor.
Use-by date: This represents the last day of peak quality. It's the only expiration date that's relevant to home storage or use.
And here's where it gets really shocking for us date-watchers: Even when the "use-by" date has come and gone, the food is still usually considered safe to eat. And it will remain safe to eat for quite some time, as long as it was stored at the correct proper temperature. The bottom line? Most expired food belongs on the table and not in the trash [source: USDA].
While the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration have the authority to change any food labels that are misleading, they stop short of forcing food companies to provide helpful, comprehensive freshness information on food packaging. These labels -- whether they exist, what they contain -- are entirely up to the manufacturer. The only food that has federally required expiration dates is infant formula because it loses nutrients over time [source: NRDC].
A Patchwork Approach to Expiration Dates
When it comes to expiration dates, food safety and food quality comprise vastly different criteria. Surprisingly, long-expired food is still considered -- by the regulators, at least -- good enough to eat. That outdated granola bar packed with soft oats or that chocolate bar now displaying a whitish bloom may not taste very good, but they can still be consumed without making you sick.
In fact, the expiration dates on your food don't have much to do with the risk of food poisoning. For example, you could buy a package of raw chicken and neglect to refrigerate it. The chicken could become bacteria-ridden within a few hours and become unsafe to eat -- no matter what the expiration date on the package says.
These dates are evidence of an inconsistent and outmoded system initially implemented as a way to address consumer concerns about food freshness. By the 1970s, consumers weren't getting their foods from a backyard garden or neighboring farm but from the market, where foods were often sold past their prime. More than 10 congressional bills were introduced from 1973 to 1975, all with a food-dating focus. The result was the patchwork of federal and state food dating regulations that are still confusing consumers today [source: Sifferlin].
In the absence of sweeping national rules governing food dating, state governments have filled the gap. Forty-one states have implemented food-dating rules with little consistency. For example, one state regulation may not allow a box of crackers to be sold after its stamped date while another state may not require an expiration date at all [source: Sifferlin].
Food scientists determine expiration dates based on observing how long it takes for a food to start losing its quality (change texture, lose flavor and so on) under proper storage conditions. As we said earlier, this doesn't mean it is unsafe to eat. It just may not look its best. For highly perishable items like ready-to-eat salads, scientists also look at how much microbial activity is present after a certain number of days, since harmful bacteria could be present before a person could detect spoilage [sources: NSW Food Authority, A Dash of Science].
The Actual Expiration of Expiration Dates
In general, if you have purchased a perishable food item before its expiration date and promptly refrigerate it, it will keep for quite some time. Eggs, for example, can be used up to five weeks later. Fresh apples will keep a couple of months in the refrigerator. Just be sure to watch for warning signs like off-putting odors, colors or flavors, which can indicate spoiling [source: Eat By Date].
You also may consider using the freezer to extend your consumption range. Raw chicken breasts, for example, could be stored in your refrigerator for a couple of days, while a cut of beef could keep for up to five days. Transfer either of these -- or other perishable item -- to the freezer and it will be safe indefinitely. It may not taste great after existing in subzero temperatures for two years, but it will still be safe to eat. You can even freeze milk, although you should plan on using it for cooking rather than drinking because of the change in taste [sources: USDA, Dairy Council of California].
Canned goods and shelf-stable foods like boxed macaroni-and-cheese have greater latitude than their perishable cousins. Unopened, they can be eaten a year or two past their expiration dates, although there have been more extreme examples. In 1974, scientists at the National Food Processors Association in Washington, D.C., opened and studied a 40-year-old can of corn, along with 100-year-old canned oysters, tomatoes and red peppers. The food looked and smelled edible and even retained most of its nutrients, save lower levels of vitamin C. Although the scientists didn't stage any tastes, they believed the food would have been safe to eat. That's good news for all the preppers out there stockpiling canned goods in their bunkers [source: Charles].
Author's Note: Are expired foods still safe to eat?
I've been wrong all along. There has been a great debate about food in my home, particularly when it comes to expiration dates. I err on the side of caution, tossing yogurts, condiments, soups, leftovers -- anything that goes a day past its prime. I blame my mother (in the most loving way). A child of the Great Depression, she is exceedingly frugal. She's been known to remove mold from cheese and serve the good parts with dinner. When she cracks an egg, she runs her finger around the inside of the shell to remove all the white. She adds water to soup and never makes a meal that can't be stretched to feed a crowd. She's actually a great cook, but her tendency to see expiration dates as a moving target influenced my food storage habits in adulthood. I've been faithfully obeying expiration dates for years. Now it looks like I may need to change my tune. Or what's on the menu, at the very least.
- Charles, Dan. "Don't Fear That Expired Food." NPR. Dec. 26, 2012. (Feb. 24, 2014) http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2012/12/26/167819082/dont-fear-that-expired-food
- Dairy Council of California. "Can I Freeze Milk?" (Feb. 24, 2014) http://www.healthyeating.org/Milk-Dairy/Dairy-Facts/Milk-Storage-Handling/Article-Viewer/Article/1583/Can-I-Freeze-Milk.aspx
- Eat By Date. "How Long Do Apples Last?" (Feb. 24, 2014) http://www.eatbydate.com/fruits/fresh/apples-shelf-life-expiration-date/
- Natural Resources Defense Council. "New Report: Food Expiration Date Confusion Causing up to 90 Percent of Americans to Waste Food." Sept. 18, 2013. (Feb. 24, 2014) http://www.nrdc.org/media/2013/130918.asp
- Natural Resources Defense Council. "The Dating Game." Oct. 22, 2013. (Feb. 24, 2014) http://www.nrdc.org/food/expiration-dates.asp
- Sifferlin, Alexandra. "Foods You Are Probably Throwing Away Too Early." Time. Sept. 19, 2013. (Feb. 24, 2014) http://healthland.time.com/2013/09/18/foods-you-are-probably-throwing-away-too-early/
- Sifferlin, Alexandra. "Is Your Food Expired? Don't Be So Quick To Toss It." Time. Sept. 18, 2013. (Feb. 24, 2014) http://healthland.time.com/2013/09/18/is-your-food-expired-dont-be-so-quick-to-toss-it/#ixzz2tF0f7LGD
- USDA. "Food Product Dating." August 2013. (Feb. 24, 2014) http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/wcm/connect/19013cb7-8a4d-474c-8bd7-bda76b9defb3/Food_Product_Dating.pdf?MOD=AJPERES