Ok, here’s a specific example. You’ve just discovered a long-forgotten pack of canned tuna from the back of your pantry. You crack open the can, and it looks good, smells fine, and you don’t see any mold. But it passed its ‘best by’ date 2 weeks ago. Worried that the tuna might harbor some invisible bacteria that can harm you, you mumble, “Better safe than sorry” and toss it into the trash bin.
Just like the fate of this ‘perfectly good’ pack of tuna, a huge amount of food gets wasted around the world on a daily basis (approx. over 4 million tons annually in the US alone). This happens because we try our best to decipher the safety message printed on food labels. Part of this is largely because we misinterpret what these expiration dates mean.
How Long is it Safe to Consume After its Expiration Date?
It totally depends on the type of food. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) recommends, regardless of the dates, people should evaluate the quality and freshness of the food before deciding to eat it or toss it away. Federal law also says that food product dating is for quality check, not safety (except with infant formulas - that’s altogether different). So what does expiration dates mean then and how long is food really safe to consume?
How to Read Expiration Dates
The first thing you need to consider is whether the dates on your packages are actually the expiration date. Even if certain food passes its packaging dates, it could still be perfectly safe to consume, depending on the label.
In your nearby grocery stores or on Martie’s site, you might have come across different terms being used on food labels to show expiration dates. Confused about these labeling? Don’t worry, most of us are in that same boat. To bring some clarity about product labeling and how to interpret them, here’s an explanation from the FSIS and the Institute of Food Technologists.
Best If Used By: This refers to the date by which the product is at its BEST quality. You can also treat this as the ‘last call’, beyond which the quality or freshness guarantee of the product is shaky. Check for the best if used by date the next time you crack open a cookie box! And remember, this is where creativity starts. Never toss tortilla chips! Make Chilaquiles with those stale chips. The French have basically created an entire meal time dedicated to last night’s baguette.
Use By: This is straightforward. Use by dates simply suggest when you should eat the food. But don’t worry, even if a certain food has lost its freshness or nutritional value after its ‘use by’ dates - you can still consume it without falling sick. In certain cases, it might also taste completely fine. To this we say, rock on!
Sell By: This date is a reminder for retailers to either sell before it or get the product off their shelves. But it doesn’t mean it’s unsafe for consumers after the date. As reported by IFT, one-third of a product’s shelf-life remains after the sell-by date for the consumer to use at home. For instance, eggs are safe for 3-5 weeks even after their sell-by date. There are tons of tips and articles online about looking up how to tell if specific food items are still good. Follow this trusty guide to see if your eggs are still good.
Freeze By: As it suggests, this date shows when a product should be frozen to maintain its peak quality. For instance, all those leftovers from last night, or the meat or fish that you got during the week to prepare your favorite weekend meal, are all safe in that freezer. And don’t worry, despite some old wives’ tales, freezing food does not reduce its nutritional values. So freeze away!
Here’s a Food Expiration Date Chart for Your Reference
But we always say, don’t judge your food! Always do the smell/taste test before tossing anything away.
Can canned food last long too?
Unfortunately, canned food can go bad according to the USDA after a point. High-acid foods like tomatoes and citrus fruits like oranges, lime, or grapefruit can last up to 1 year. Low-acid food like vegetables, meat and fish can last for up to 5 years if stored well.
What about leftovers?
Have a giant pot of soup that could feed an entire baseball team? Invite them over! USDA suggests that most leftover food lasts for about 4 days only. Dishes that include uncooked ingredients like mayonnaise or cheese can spoil even faster. Don’t let uneaten food linger over the counter for over 2 hours. This way you’ll avoid inviting unwanted bacteria. Best way to save those leftovers is to pack them well and freeze them as soon as possible.
Still concerned about the quality and goodness of the pasta bowl from 2 days ago? Refer to government online resources, like this one from the USDA, that can give you general guidelines on how long a certain food can be consumed after their expiration dates, when stored properly. Just be your best judge, check food using your sense organs, and consume only if you feel confident about it.