While it is true that almost any food can become contaminated if handled improperly, foods that are purchased or used after their expiration dates may also contain bacteria or other pathogens that can cause a foodborne illness.
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 two major categories of pantry foods, unprocessed and processed:
Unprocessed pantry foods—These include foods like pastas, cereal, baking mixes, dry beans, grains, and nuts. If they have been stored unopened and have no damage to their packaging, these shelf-stable foods should be good for a long time (12 months or longer). After opening, store these products in airtight containers to keep out insects, humidity, and odors.
Processed pantry foods—These are considered shelf stable because they have either been heat treated (canned foods), are a dry formulation (cake mixes), or have reduced water content (dried foods, crackers). The quality of these products should be fine until opened. But, watch out for cans that develop cracks at the seams, bulge, or spurt liquid when opened. These changes may indicate the presence of a bacterium called Clostridium botulinum, the toxin that causes botulism. If this happens, the cans should be discarded. Note also that certain processed pantry foods must be refrigerated once you have opened them.
To keep these foods at their best quality, store them in clean, dry, cool cabinets away from the stove or the refrigerator's exhaust.
“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°F. And do not overload the fridge—this prevents air from circulating freely and cooling foods evenly.
According to the Food and 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:
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.
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.
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.
Partnership for Food Safety Education
Dietitians of Canada
Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education
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Last reviewed May 2011 by Brian Randall, MD
Last Updated: 5/19/2011
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