Is Expired Food Safe to Eat?

Confusion over expiration dates means that tons of perfectly good food is thrown out every day.
Marcia Wendorf

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans throw out between 30% and 40% of the food they have purchased. A USDA study in 2018 showed that the average American throws out almost 1 pound of food a day!

In 2010, an estimated 133 billion pounds of food from U.S. retail food stores, restaurants, and homes, valued at approximately $161 billion went uneaten, and the bill for dumping all this uneaten food into landfills was more than $2 billion.


In fact, food is the largest component of landfills, accounting for over 20% by weight, and food waste quickly generates methane, a greenhouse gas that is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Is Expired Food Safe to Eat?
Source: gilaxia/iStock

Most food is thrown out when its age exceeds that of one of the expiration dates placed on it, but Federal regulations don't require that expiration dates be placed on any food with one exception — baby formula.

So, why do foods carry these dates? The Department of Agriculture says they're there as a helpful guide to consumers and retailers, but how helpful are they really?

Three types of labels

Food carries any of these three types of dates:

  • Best If Used By/Before Date – found on more perishable items such as meat, it states when a product is of the best quality or flavor
  • Sell By Date – used by manufacturers to tell retailers when to remove a product from their shelves
  • Use By Date – that last date that guarantees the safety of the product.

Companies come up with these dates by considering how the food is packaged, at what temperature it will be transported, how long it might be un-refrigerated, and at what temperature the consumer's fridge will be. They then make their best guess as to when the food could possibly first spoil.

In an attempt to standardize this labeling, in May 2016, the Food Date Labeling Act was introduced in both houses of Congress, but the bill is still mired in committee in both houses.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute, along with 25 manufacturers and retailers, have set a goal of updating the labeling of all consumer packaged goods by January 2020. They have been working to standardize product labeling by using only two labels: "Best If Used By" to indicate the best quality, and "Use By" for perishable foods to indicate the date after which the food should be thrown out.

How do you know if your food is safe?

The best way to determine if your food is safe to eat is to use your eyes and nose. Does the food's color look right? Is its odor all right? How is its texture? The USDA has created a free app, FoodKeeper, to help you determine whether your food is safe to eat.

Most Popular
Is Expired Food Safe to Eat?
Source: millann/iStock

In general, canned goods such as tuna, soups, and vegetables are good for 2 - 5 years, but an exception is high-acid foods, such as canned tomatoes, juices, and pickles. They are only good for 12 to 18 months. If your cans show dents or bulges, toss them.

Food How Long It Lasts Tips
Apples In the fridge, 4 - 8 weeks If it is wrinkled or feels mushy, toss it.
Avocado At room temperature, 4 - 7 days Pull off the small stem, and if the skin beneath it is green, the avocado is ripe
Baking powder At room temperature, about 1 year After a year, it loses its leavening ability, to test, add 1 teaspoon to 1/2 cup of hot water, if you see bubbles, it's still good
Bananas At room temperature, 2 - 5 days Some brown spots are OK, ripe bananas are easy to peel
Blueberries In the fridge, 1 - 2 weeks Eat soon after buying, if they look moldy or feel moist, toss
Bread As long as it doesn't smell sour or spoiled Mold can be cut off, and stale bread makes excellent croutons or French toast
Broccoli In the fridge, 7 - 14 days If it looses its dark green color or the stems feel mushy, toss
Canola oil At room temperature, 1 year Keep it in a cool, dry place away from the stove; toss if it gets an unpleasant flavor or smell
Carrots In the fridge, 3 - 4 weeks Toss if they feel limp or look grainy
Cereal Up to 1 year Store in an air-tight container in a cool, dry place
Cheese Hard cheese remove the mold, soft cheese toss Just scrape off mold on hard cheeses, if you see mold on soft cheeses, toss the cheese
Chocolate Weeks after its "Sell By" date The white film that forms on old chocolate isn't mold, it's "chocolate bloom" and is safe to eat, store chocolate in a cool, dry place
Coffee, ground 1 week after being ground Store un-refrigerated whole coffee beans for up to 6 months, store in an air-tight container in the freezer for up to 2 years
Cucumbers In the fridge, 1 week Toss if it has any sunken areas, or if the skin is yellow or wrinkly
Eggs Refrigerated, 2 weeks after their "Sell By" date To determine freshness, place the egg in a glass of water, if it sinks, it's still OK, if it floats, it's spoiled and should be thrown out
Flour At room temperature 6 - 8 months past its "Best By" date Whole wheat flour will go bad more quickly due to its essential oils, if the flour has an unpleasant odor or taste, toss it
Frozen vegetables In the freezer, around 2 months While they won't go bad, their flavor will fade, and they can get freezer burn
Garlic At room temperature, 3 - 6 months If it's grown sprouts, just remove them, but toss if it has become tan or wrinkly
Juice After opening 5 - 7 days in the fridge, freshly squeezed 48 hours Freshly squeezed juice isn't pasteurized so it spoils really quickly, toss if it is discolored or smells sour
Ketchup Usually safe long past its "Best By" date, after being opened, 4 - 6 months Store opened ketchup in the refrigerator, toss unopened bottles a year after its expiration date
Lettuce, iceberg and romaine In the fridge, 7 - 10 days Toss if it turns tan, feels soggy or has a bad smell
Lemons In the fridge, 3 - 4 weeks Toss if it has dark or soft spots
Maple syrup At room temperature, about 2 years Mold can begin to grow, so two years is probably about the longest it should be kept
Milk Opened milk 4 - 7 days past its printed date, refrigerated, unopened whole milk lasts 5 - 7 days, 2% and 1% lasts 7 days, non-fat milk lasts 7 - 10 days past its printed date When refrigerated at 34 ° F
Mushrooms In the fridge, 7 - 10 days If they feel sticky or slimy, toss, whole mushrooms keep longer than sliced mushrooms
Onions At room temperature, 6 months in winter 1 - 2 months in summer Toss if it has soft or brown spots
Oranges In the fridge, 3 - 4 weeks If there are soft spots, toss
Peaches At room temperature 1 - 3 days If discolored with dark patches, toss
Pasta Dried pasta, over 2 years, fresh pasta, 2 - 3 weeks Store dry pasta in a cool, dry place, refrigerate fresh pasta
Peanut butter In the fridge, processed and natural peanut butter, 6 months after opening, unopened natural peanut butter, 3 months Extend its life by keeping it refrigerated
Potato chips For sealed bags, months past its expiration date, for unsealed bags, several weeks past Expired chips may lose their flavor and crunch
Potatoes At room temperature, 3 - 5 weeks Even if it has short sprouts, it's OK, if sprouts are longer than a few centimeters, toss
Pickles In the fridge, up to 2 years Don't use your fingers to grab a pickle, use a utensil, if they lose their crispy texture, or get slimy and soft, toss them
Rice White rice, several years, brown and wild rice, 6 months Store your rice in an air-tight container at a temperature below 40 degrees F
Soda Unopened cans and bottles, 6 - 9 months past their "Best By" date While not spoiling, the soda may lose its carbonation or flavor
Spices For green spices, such as oregano and thyme, 1 year, ground spices 2 years, whole seeds and peppercorns 3 - 4 years Keeping spices away from air can extend their shelf life
Strawberries Refrigerated, 3 - 7 days Toss if you see mold
String beans In the fridge, 3 - 5 days If they're limp or moist, toss
Tea At room temperature, 2 years You can store tea in the freezer to extend its shelf life
Tomatoes At room temperature, 1 week If they become soft and ooze liquid, toss
Watermelon At room temperature, 7 - 10 days Watermelon is ripe if it sounds hollow when tapped, if it develops soft spots, toss
Yeast Use within 6 months of opening the package If it turns dark brown and clumps together, toss it
Yogurt 1 - 2 weeks past its "Sell By" date If the yogurt separates, its just the whey protein separating and you can stir it back in
Zucchini In the fridge, 4 - 5 days If it turns gray, toss.

Tips for keeping your food safe longer

Here are a couple of tips for keeping your food safe longer. Don't store milk in your fridge's door. Every time you open the fridge, the milk is being exposed to warm air which promotes bacterial growth. Screw the milk's lid on tightly to prevent odors from other fridge items from seeping in.

Don't use your fingers to remove pickles from their jar, or to remove shredded cheese from its packaging, use a utensil. Wrap fresh broccoli in a damp paper towel. Wrap celery in tinfoil rather than plastic. Store asparagus in the fridge stem down in a glass container with half an inch of water at the bottom.

message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron