The ongoing coronavirus lockdown is limiting everyone’s access to grocery stores, so responsible shoppers are making fewer trips to the store and buying larger quantities than usual.
Having extra boxes of pasta and cartons of milk seems like a great plan, but when the “sell by” dates on these items go by, fully stocked households may throw away food products that haven’t actually gone bad, creating unnecessary food waste.
But are there times when it’s OK to eat foods after their marked expiration dates? We asked a group of food safety experts, and they gave us an explanation — and a list of six foods that don’t go bad as quickly as you think.
“Best by” and “sell by” dates aren’t strictly “expiration dates”
First, most foods don’t include hard-and-fast expiration dates. Instead, you’ll see terms like “best by” and “sell by” in front of the dates. In most cases, those terms have little to do with safety standards.
“The ‘best by,’ ‘sell by’ or ‘use by’ terms are linked to quality standards set by the manufacturer,” said Gary Weber, senior director for food safety and contamination prevention at the risk management company WorldAware. “These are not linked to safety for foods, with the notable exception of infant formula — and even in this case, the concern is nutritional quality and palatability.”
Others agree. “Many consumers are unaware that the food labels are used by manufacturers to indicate when the product is at its peak for best flavor,” said Jory Lange, a lawyer who specializes in food poisoning cases.
A “sell by” date tells a retailer how long to display a product, and a “use by” date is the final date by which a consumer should use the item while it’s at peak quality, Lange told HuffPost. “This, too, is not a safety date, unless it is infant formula,” he added.
Six foods that you can safely use past their “sell by” or “use by” dates
Cooking up that linguine or penne after the indicated day won’t put you in any danger. The dates refer to a company’s good-faith guarantee rather than to any science-based safety concerns.
“For some dry goods, the ‘best by’ date can be a bit artificial and [is] more an indication of how long a company will stand behind the product. A good example is dried pasta,” said Scott Riefler, chief science officer at SoRSE Technology.
Like dried pasta, canned goods undergo preparation and packaging processes focused on keeping them shelf-stable for long periods of time. “Canned goods, as long as the can itself is in good condition and air has not leaked in, can be safe after their suggested ‘best if used by’ date,” said Elis Owens, director of technical services at the food safety consulting firm Birko.
Dry Baking Ingredients
Dry goods for baking, such as flour and sugar, don’t present safety concerns if eaten past their marked dates. A quick visual inspection will let you know whether you should toss out the bag or use it in your sourdough or cake batter.
“Just like dry processed foods (like oats, grains, and pasta), dry baking ingredients have little or no moisture, so they’re less vulnerable to bacterial growth. Just don’t eat any dry ingredients that have an unnatural smell or signs of a pest infestation,” said food scientist Janilyn Hutchings of StateFoodSafety.
But leavening agents such as baking powder or baking soda will lose their effectiveness after their dates have expired.
You may assume that you can never use dairy products or eggs after their expiration dates, since they’re more prone to spoiling than shelf-stable groceries. That’s not necessarily so.
“Most eggs [in the United States] are processed with mineral oil, since the shells are porous,”food safety consultant Steven Chevalier of CloudBreak Advisory told HuffPost. “This helps to seal the shell and helps to keep out bacteria. If kept refrigerated at 41 F or below, eggs may last up to three weeks past their expiration date. However, if they have been washed or cooked (removing the mineral oil), they will only last about a week.”
Eggs are usually packed one to two days after a hen lays them, so you can determine on which date the eggs were packed by looking at the U.S. Department of Agriculture grade shield, Chevalier added. “It will have a three-digit number representing the consecutive day of the year, with Jan. 1 having a code of 001 and Dec. 31 with a code of 365.” The department advises that “sell by” dates cannot exceed 45 days past the pack date for quality purposes, he said.
OK, so you have a couple of weeks of leeway with eggs. But you need to follow the dates on milk cartons, right? Not so, Chevalier said: “If stored correctly (under 41 F), milk can last up to a week after the expiration date.”
Still, Chevalier recommends abiding by expiration dates when possible. “There are other factors that play into milk’s longevity: whether the milk has been stored correctly during transport, sale and by the consumer, what type of processing method was used to make it, the fat content, the exposure to light and heat, and so on,” he said. It’s always best to use your senses — give it a sniff! — to determine if you can continue using it past the expiration date.
In certain instances, ground beef doesn’t have a “sell by” or “best by” date on its packaging. Instead, it will have a “freeze by” date, which some shoppers mistake for an expiration date.
Owens urges shoppers to take the “freeze by” dates at face value. “A fresh pack of ground beef may have a 14-day shelf life, with an expiration date expressed as a ‘freeze by’ date. If you freeze it constantly at zero degrees Fahrenheit or lower, the food will stay safe due to the inactivity of microbes present in food. When food is frozen, it slows molecule movement and causes microbes, such as bacteria, mold or yeast, to enter a dormant stage, which prevents the growth of microorganisms that cause food spoilage or illness.”
Before tossing a food item that’s past its marked date, do a visual or smell test for quality
“Sell by” and “use by” dates offer shoppers useful guidelines for optimal food storage times ― with, as our experts suggest, a certain amount of wiggle room. But how else can grocery buyers determine whether their ingredients can stick it out for a little bit longer or whether they need to surrender their milk or flour to the trash can?
Public health dietitian Stephanie Hodges of The Nourished Principles recommends sight and smell tests. “As a public health dietitian, I always encourage consumers to examine the food if it is past the date listed on the package,” she said. “Does it look OK? Does it smell OK? Many times, the date listed on a food is there to ensure the quality of a product and is not an indicator of whether or not the food is safe to eat.”
Hodges also advises restraint during shopping trips in the interest of reducing food waste. “I also encourage consumers to purchase what they need,” she told HuffPost. “Make a list prior to shopping. When putting food away, practice the ‘first in, first out’ method, so that older pantry or refrigerator items are moved to the front and are more likely to be used and not thrown away.”