Food Expiration Dates: What Do They Really Mean?
by Robin Brett Parnes, MS, MPH
While it is true that almost any food can become contaminated if handled improperly, some foods that are purchased or used after their expiration dates may also contain bacteria or other pathogens that can cause a foodborne illness. Others foods may lose some of their nutritional value without becoming contaminated.
To Toss or Not to Toss
The expiration dates on foods reflect when to buy or use a product at its best quality. So, while you will not necessarily get sick from eating expired food, its freshness and nutrient value may be diminished. Therefore, the trick is to know how long a product is safe to eat after its expiration date. The following tips may help.
Pantry, or shelf stable (nonperishable) foods, like cereal, baking mixes, and peanut butter may display “best if used by (or before)” dates. These indicate the shelf-life of a product—they tell you when a product is no longer at peak flavor, texture, and appearance. You can safely eat most of these types of foods past their listed date if they have been stored properly, but they may not taste their best or be as nutritious. There are 2 major categories of pantry foods, unprocessed and processed:
To keep these foods at their best quality, store them in clean, dry, cool cabinets away from the stove or the refrigerator's exhaust. Do not store food under the sink, where they could be damaged by water or chemicals.
“Sell-By” dates on refrigerated foods like milk and chicken tell stores how long to display the product for sale and take into account additional storage time at home. If possible, it is best to buy a product before this date.
“Use-By” dates indicate the last day recommended for use of a perishable product while at peak quality. Try to avoid buying foods that are already past this date, even though most are generally still safe to eat. Simply check the item first for an odd odor, a strange appearance, or an unpleasant flavor.
Here is how to store your perishable foods:
Always keep your refrigerator at or just below 40°Fahrenheit (4.4° Celsius). And do not overload the fridge—this prevents air from circulating freely and cooling foods evenly.
According to the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA), frozen foods are safe indefinitely, so their expiration dates apply only to quality and nutritional value. But, make sure the items are frozen solid without signs of thawing. Otherwise:
Keep your freezer at or just below 0°F (18° below zero C).
Bakery items (which should have a “sell-by” date) that contain custards, meat, vegetables, or frostings made of cream cheese, whipped cream, or eggs should be kept refrigerated. Any bread product not containing these ingredients, or those that contain eggs but have been baked (like muffins), can safely be kept at room temperature. These foods should be good for about a couple of days. However, if you begin to see signs of mold, they should be tossed.
What to Do If You Suspect a Foodborne Illness
Contaminated foods can cause illness within a few minutes or up to a few days after consumption. Look for symptoms such as nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, headache, fever, and weakness. While most foodborne illnesses are short-lived and require no medical treatment, others can be serious or even life threatening. If you suspect food poisoning, you should talk to your doctor right away. This is especially important for pregnant women, young children, the elderly, and people who have a suppressed immune systems. In addition, any incidence of suspected food poisoning should be reported to your local health department immediately.
The Bottom Line
Regardless of the date on any product always be on the lookout for spoilage. If a food smells funny to you or has something growing on it that you think should not be there, throw it out immediately.
Food Safety—US Department of Health & Human Services
Partnership for Food Safety Education
Dietitians of Canada
Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education
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Food product dating. US Department of Agriculture website. Available at: https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/food-labeling/food-product-dating/food-product-dating. Updated December 14, 2016. Accessed May 5, 2017.
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Keep food safe! Food safety basics. US Department of Agriculture website. Available at: https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/safe-food-handling/keep-food-safe-food-safety-basics/ct_index . Updated December 20, 2017. Accessed May 5, 2017.
Last reviewed May 2017 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
Last Updated: 5/5/2017
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