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Sunday, February 6, 2022

Is Expired Food Any Good?

We’ve been taught to throw out expired food, just to be on the “safe” side. But nearly all of it is fine to eat.     

Forty percent of food produced in America is headed for a landfill. A landmark study found that the average American family tosses out food worth between $1,365 and $2,275 every single year. Part of the problem is our system of labeling foods with “Use by,” “Sell by” and “Best by” dates. In fact, to call it a “system” isn’t very accurate.

For instance, did you know that fresh eggs will last three to five weeks in your refrigerator, although you need to store them on a shelf, not in the door. A good test is to put the egg in a bowl of water; if it sinks, it’s still plenty fresh. And if you have more eggs than you can use, lightly beat them before putting them in a tightly sealed container to store in the freezer for up to a year or so.

Expiration Dates Are Erratic

The only foods in the U.S. that have a hard expiration date are infant formula, some baby foods, and milk from certain states. In fact, with the aforementioned exceptions, date labels on U.S. foods are not standardized and have almost nothing to do with food safety. They started as a service by manufacturers to help grocers rotate stock in the years following World War II, as grocery stores grew and products were shipped across the country. 

How To Extend Shelf Life

Start by checking the temperature where food is stored. Kitchen cabinets should be between 50 degrees F and 70 degrees F (your room temperature). Keep your fridge at 37 degrees F and your freezer at 0 degrees F or below. 

Dry goods need to be stored in airtight containers, which will keep out bacteria and moisture. When you prep foods for storage in the freezer, wrap them tightly and mark them with the date. Check out Consumer Reports for strategies on how to store 17 specific foods. One tip: never store bread or chocolate in the refrigerator.

However, savvy shoppers wanted the freshest food, and booklets cracking the expiration codes began circulating for their use. Seeing this, producers began to put uncoded dates on their products to show consumers the food they offered was fresh. But there was nothing consistent about them. With no federal guidelines, some states passed laws that standardized labeling for some foods. For instance, some states set the freshness label on milk at 14 days after bottling, others set the same threshold at 21 days, and still other states have no standard at all. 

Furthermore, we have dates that mean “best by” from some producers, “sell by” from others, and “best if used before” on other products. The average shopper may not stop to consider the difference in the three terms:

Best By: Refers to the last day to use the product when quality and taste will be highest. It’s always set by the food manufacturer and has no correlation to safety. 

Sell By: Lets the store know when to pull food off the shelf. It is a guideline (and it may even be in the producer’s interest to make this time period brief) and has nothing to do with safety or even how tasty the food is.

Best if Used Before: This moniker refers only to food flavor, texture, or perceived quality. Producers label their foods with this date to avoid having a customer buy a product that may be slightly off in flavor, texture, color, etc. and associate it with the brand. 

Why doesn’t Congress do something about this mishmash of laws and lack of regulation? A bill known as the Food Date Labeling Act was introduced in 2019 but it is languishing in committee. 

About the only food that is really dangerous to eat long after purchase is deli food, or other prepared foods that are left at out at room temperature and not refrigerated. If cooked foods have been left out on the counter for more than two hours, or one hour if the temperature is more than 90 degrees, do not trust them even if they were moved to the fridge. Another caveat is to be aware of the signs of spoilage in canned food:  
  • A bulging can or lid, or a broken seal.
  • Any sign of corrosion.
  • Food that has seeped out under the lid.
  • Gas, indicated by bubbles moving upward when you open the jar.
  • Food that appears moldy, cloudy, or mushy.
And what about milk? If pasteurized milk gets too old, it will turn sour but it won’t hurt you. In fact, it can replace buttermilk or sour cream in baked goods, tenderize meat or be added to soups, casseroles, and salad dressings. Go here for recipes. Don’t throw out your butter, either, which lasts a couple of months in the fridge, or five to nine months in the freezer. Cheeses can be frozen for up to six months. What about cheese you forgot about and left in the fridge? Hard cheeses that pass the smell test are fine to eat (consider them more aged), while soft cheeses such as brie and feta retain moisture and are best avoided. You probably want to cut off the mold, but the Mayo Clinic says it’s not dangerous for healthy adults. 

We hope this information helps you to save money and maybe even some space in your local landfill. Of course, if you have a health condition you should consult your doctor about food safety, but most adults can safely eat a wide variety of foods past the date stamped on the container. You can toast to that - unopened liquor has an indefinite shelf life, and opened bottles usually retain flavor and color for about two years.