Americans throw an astonishing amount of food away. In fact, one 2018 study found the average American consumer throws away almost a pound of food everyday.
Likewise, 40 percent of food produced in the US goes uneaten, and Harvard University suggests confusing date labels on foods is contributing to the high food waste in the US. Therefore, understanding the dates and what they mean on food can reduce food waste.
Is expired food safe to eat? If so, how long past the expiration date is it safe? How do you know if food is too spoiled to eat?
Read on to answer these and other questions about the safety of eating expired foods.
What Is Expired Food?
One of the problems with dates on foods is that they are voluntary and the meaning behind each date can vary. The only foods that are federally mandated to require expiration labels are infant formula and baby food. State regulations may also enforce retailers to get rid of dairy products past the expiration date.
According to Consumer Reports, 90 percent of Americans misinterpret dates on food packaging. One problem with the confusion of dates on food is the differing terms of 'best by', 'use by' or 'sell by'. They all mean slightly different things, but consumers can misconstrue these dates to mean the food is not edible past any of these dates.
To clarify, below describes phrases most commonly used with dates on food and what they mean.
When written on a label, the expiration date means the date a food should be eaten or used by this date. However, this does not necessarily mean the food will definitely be spoiled after this date.
'Best By' or 'Use By' Date
'Best by' and 'use by' refer to dates that a food will have the best quality. However, these dates do not refer to food safety.
Eating the food past the best by or use by date is most likely still safe, but the quality or flavor may be slightly less than before. Some people may not even notice a lessened quality of taste, though.
An exception for 'use by' date is with infant formula. This should not be used past the recommended 'use by' date.
'Sell By' Date
'Sell by' is similar to the 'best by' date and does not usually refer to food safety but rather food quality. It is also more a guide for retailers for how long to have food items available for purchase.
Food should be purchased before the 'sell by' date, although the food is most likely still safe after this date just lower quality or taste.
According to WebMD, dairy products can be eaten up to a week past the 'sell by' date and still be fine.
What Happens If You Eat Expired Food?
If you eat expired food, intentional or not, in most cases nothing will happen especially if the expiration or best by date is recently past.
So, what is the best way to gauge the safety of expired food? Experts suggest trusting your senses to see if food is safe while questioning:
• Does the food have visible signs of going bad such as mold growth?
• Does it smell bad or has the texture changed?
• Does the food taste off?
If any of these are answered yes, it would be best to not eat the expired food. However, if the food appears, smells, and looks ok, it probably is still safe to eat.
Another consideration with canned foods is to notice if there is any bulging or denting of the can. If so, this could be a sign of spoilage and would be best to not eat it no matter what the date is.
However, if the can is intact but past date, use the same sensory methods for testing edibility.
Side Effects of Food Poisoning
If you do get sick after eating expired food, it could be from food poisoning. However, non-expired food could also just as likely be the source of foodborne illness.
Food poisoning can vary in symptoms from nausea/vomiting, stomach ache, diarrhea, or fever. The onset and length of illness after eating varies depending on the bacteria or virus.
The CDC suggests seeking medical care for the following food poisoning conditions:
• Diarrhea does not improve after three days
• Diarrhea and fever over 102 degrees are present
• Diarrhea is bloody
• Vomiting and not being able to keep liquids down
• Signs of dehydration
How to Lower Food Poisoning Risk
Eating foods before expiration dates does not guarantee food is free from pathogens. However, there are steps to take to lower the risk of food poisoning.
One of the main ways to lower the risk from getting sick from food is to cook and store food at proper temperatures. Food safety charts are available from Foodsafety.gov for proper temperatures for cooking meats and storing temperatures for raw, uncooked, and cooked foods.
Also, keep raw and cooked foods separate including utensils and cutting boards. Washing produce thoroughly before eating can also help lower risk of food poisoning from fruits and vegetables.
Tips to Avoid Wasting Food
Knowing when food is still okay to eat after expiration dates can help avoid food waste. How else can food waste be avoided?
1. Use the Freezer
If raw meat is not eaten in a few days after purchasing, put it in the freezer. This will extend the time it stays fresh. Just pull out of the freezer and unthaw under running cold water (or cook in a frozen state).
Similar with fresh fruits and vegetables - if you are not able to use them before they go bad, put them in the freezer. Peel or chop as needed.
For example, brown bananas can be peeled and chunked and stored in the freezer. These can be used for making smoothies or for dairy-free nice cream.
2. Store Food Properly
3. Meal Plan
Meal prepping for the week can help use what food you have on hand and have a plan for what groceries to get. This can also help use up leftovers for other meals.
If prepping meals ahead of time, make sure to eat prepared food in a few days time.
4. Use the 'First In, First Out' Method
As in food service, make sure to rotate food in the refrigerator, freezer, and pantry. Use older food first, and put newer foods behind older packages.
Dates of food packages can be confusing and lead to high amounts of food waste.
Dates on food packages are mostly when to eat by in order for peak quality, not necessarily food safety. Therefore, eating foods past the 'best by', 'use by', 'sell by' or expiration dates are usually considered safe.
A way to test if food is safe past the date is to look, smell and taste it. If anything seems off, throw it out. However, if everything appears normal, it is probably safe to eat.
In order to use food by the expiration dates and avoid food from spoiling, make sure to store food properly. Also use the oldest ingredients first before using new ones, and plan meals out for the week to help lower food waste.
Ceasrine L. How to Tell Whether Expired Food Is Safe to Eat. Consumer Reports. Published September 21, 2019. https://www.consumerreports.org/food-safety/how-to-tell-whether-expired-food-is-safe-to-eat/.
Lawrence S. Do Food Expiration Dates Really Matter? WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/features/do-food-expiration-dates-matter.