Foods Gone Bad: How to Know If Your Food Is Safe to Eat

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You’re cleaning out your refrigerator (when was the last time you actually did that?) and come across unopened containers of food that look and smell OK. But are they safe to eat? How do you know for sure? Listeria, Salmonella, E. coli, Cyclospora, norovirus, and Campylobacter are just a handful of nasty bacteria, viruses, and parasites that can grow in or on food.

Not taking proper precautions with your food can, at the very least, keep you feeling miserable for a few hours or, at worst, land you in the hospital with serious and sometimes fatal complications. On the other hand, while no one wants to get sick, in the U.S, we waste an awful lot of food. Not to mention that we pay good money for our food. It’s hard to literally throw money (well, food) down the drain or in the trash, especially if it’s unopened.

Waste not, want not
Last September, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic issued a jointly prepared report titled “The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America.” You can access this 64-page report here — it might be worth a read if you have the time.

In this report, the authors state that the U.S. wastes at least 160 billion pounds of food each year (yes, that unopened yogurt container that you just threw out is part of the waste), and 40% of our food goes uneaten. The cost of this waste to the average American family of four? Roughly $1,365 to $2,275 each year. I don’t know about you, but I can think of other things to spend that money on.

A big reason for this food waste, according to the report, is the confusion around what those food expiration dates on the package mean. The report outlines suggestions for how food date labeling could be much improved. But if and when changes are made, it’s up to us as consumers to learn what the various dates on foods mean, how to safely store food, and when to discard food.

Expiration dates
We’ve all seen “sell by,” “best if used by,” and “expiration” dates on food containers and packages. Some of us take these very seriously, whereas others, well, we might completely ignore them. The reality is that dating food products isn’t required under federal law (with the exception of infant formula and baby food). Individual states may have their own regulations, however. In addition, stores are not required to remove food products from their shelves once the expiration date has passed. What do these dates really mean, anyway? Here’s a rundown:

Sell by. This date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. It basically indicates the last day that the product is at its highest level of quality (freshness, taste, consistency) and doesn’t indicate spoilage. As a consumer, you should buy this product before the date expires to ensure that you’re getting a high-quality food. The “sell by” date is not mandatory.

Best If used by (or before). This indicates the last date recommended for best quality or flavor. It’s not a safety or purchase date.

Use by. This is the last date recommended for the use of the product at its peak quality and also doesn’t pertain to safety. The food manufacturer determines this date, not the retailer.

Guaranteed fresh. This date pertains to bakery items. After the date, the item may not be at its freshest.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) advises that you go by the “use by” date on a product. Buy eggs before the “sell by” or “EXP” date on the carton. They warn that any food that has an off odor, flavor, or appearance (like mold on sour cream) is likely spoiled due to bacteria and should be discarded. That seems like good, common sense.

How long foods will last
If trying to decipher dates on food products doesn’t seem worth your while, you might consider learning some basic rules for commonly eaten foods.

Eggs. As long as you bought them before the “sell by” date, they should last three to five weeks after you refrigerated them.

Milk. Should last a week after the “sell by” date.

Poultry, seafood, ground beef. Cook or freeze no later than two days after purchase.

Beef, pork, lamb, veal. Cook or freeze no later than five days after purchase.

Luncheon meat. Lasts three to five days after opening.

Bacon and hot dogs. Last one week after opening.

Canned foods. Acidic foods like tomato sauce will keep for up to 18 months. Other canned foods, like green beans, may last up to five years. Keep canned foods out of heat and humidity. And never eat food that’s from a bulging can — discard that right away!

The list can go on and on. Wondering if that jar of Chinese mustard is still okay? Worried that your arugula is past its prime? Visit StillTasty for a helpful database of foods, storage tips, and information on how long you can keep them. Another helpful site is EatByDate, which provides similar information and gives you hints on how you can know if a food has gone bad.

If you have a hard time remembering when you bought that package of chicken breasts, write the date of purchase or the “use by” date on the package when you get home from the grocery store. It may seem like a lot of effort, but by doing so, you’ll be reminded of when to use your food by each time you open the fridge. And remember that common sense prevails: Throw out foods that smell or look bad. Don’t take a chance with your health.

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