Let’s clear up the confusion over expiration dates, “best by” dates, and “sell by” dates. We all know that cereal doesn’t suddenly go stale the day after the date on the top of the box. Canned goods don’t go rancid the day after either, right? So when do these foods go bad? When are they still safe to consume? Is it wise to buy foods nearing their expiration dates when the store puts them in the discount bin? If we’re in a survival situation, can we safely consume pears 3 years past the date on the can?
The most important fact to know here is that the USDA does not require expiration dates on anything except baby food and formula. Manufacturers of everything else put dates on their products voluntarily. They want you to consume their products when they are at their best quality in taste, texture, and nutrition.
Furthermore, foodborne illness is NOT caused by spoilage. Old food doesn’t make you sick. Even rancid or rotting food doesn’t make you sick. Contaminated food makes you sick. A pathogen has to be present in your food to make you sick, and at a concentrated enough level to cause illness.
Now, let’s break it down.
“Sell By” dates are often found on meat or dairy items. They’re still safe after this date, but will start to go rancid not long after, so use or freeze quickly. These items are often not sealed and are at a higher risk of becoming contaminated, so exercise caution here. Use your nose. If it smells funny, you may want to toss it.
“Best By” or “Use By” dates are merely an indication of when the manufacturer feels the item is at its best quality. It’s is not an indication of safety. This is when crackers may begin to get stale or when nutrition levels begin to break down and may not match what’s on the label. But again, this food is still safe unless there are indicators of contamination. Do not consume cans with bulging sides or bread with mold, for example.
So if expiration dates don’t clue us in, how can we tell if food has gone bad?.
We know from various food recalls over the years that even sealed foods straight from the manufacturer are not immune to contamination. So here’s how you recognize when good food has gone bad.
Signs of contamination:
- bulging cans
- lids with signs of corrosion
- liquid seeping under a jar lid
- unpleasant odor when you open the can or jar
- liquid that “spurts” when you open the can or jar
- eggs that float in water
- discolored meat
- mold growth
And finally, keep your food safe after opening by practicing good hygiene and by keeping cold foods cold and hot foods hot. Food kept between 41°F and 140°F are havens for bacterial growth. Once food is hot, keep it over 140°F. Or keep food cold at 40°F or less.
So let’s go back to our original questions, but this time, we’ll offer answers.
Canned goods don’t go rancid the day after either, right? No, no foods magically go rancid the day of or the day after their expiration date.
So when do these foods go bad? When are they still safe to consume? It depends. Shelf stable foods, stored in a cool, dry place will stay good for years after their “best by” date as long as they remain uncontaminated. But they’ll likely lose flavor and texture along the way. Meat and dairy will begin to go rancid soon after this.
Is it wise to buy foods nearing their expiration dates when the store puts them in the discount bin? Saving money is always wise. If it’s a product you’ll use before the taste and texture of the item keep you from enjoying it (stale crackers), then yes, it’s wise.
If we’re in a survival situation, can we safely consume pears 3 years past the date on the can? Absolutely. There have been cans found that have been 100 or more years old that, while they’d turned to mush inside, were still uncontaminated, and thus safe to eat.
For more thorough information, visit these websites:
- USDA: Food Product Dating
- About.com Culinary Arts: Food Poisoning and Food Spoilage
- NPR: Don’t Fear That Expired Food