Is This Food Safe to Eat?

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Is This Food Safe to Eat?

No one likes to throw food away, and with food prices soaring, it’s more important than ever to be mindful of waste. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) estimates that Americans throw out about a third of our food each year — that amounts to about $161 billion!

How do you know if your food has gone bad? It’s easy to tell with some foods — strawberries develop mold, milk tastes sour, and raw chicken is slimy and smells bad. But if you’re judging the safety of a food by the food expiration date printed on the can, bottle, or package, you might be throwing away perfectly good food. Here’s how to make sense of these dates.

Food product dating

Two types of product dating may be shown on a product label, says the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

  • Open dating: A calendar date applied to a food product by the manufacturer or retailer that indicates the period of time for which the product will be of best quality.
  • Closed dating: A code of letters and numbers applied by manufacturers to identity and date and time of production.

Surprisingly, perhaps, product dating is not required by federal law, with the exception of infant formula. However, about forty states require dates on perishable foods, including dairy foods, meat, poultry, shellfish, and eggs.

Making sense of food package dates

Is a can, box, or package of food still safe to eat if it’s been lurking in the back of your cupboard or refrigerator for who knows how long? To clear up any confusion, here’s what those terms and dates mean.

  • “Sell-By” date: This isn’t a safety date; rather, it’s a date used by retailers to let them know how long a product can stay on the shelf. It’s best to buy a food before the date passes, just to make sure it’s still fresh.
  • “Best if Used Before/By” date: This also isn’t a safety date. This date indicates when the food is at its “peak” of freshness.
  • “Use-by” date: This, too, is not a safety date (except for when used on infant formulas). This date indicates when the food’s quality will start to go downhill in terms of flavor. 
  • “Freeze-by” date: This date indicates when a food should be frozen to maintain it’s quality. It, too, is not a safety date.

If a food product has an “expiration date,” be sure to discard it if it’s past that date.

These terms may help clear up confusion as far as definitions go, but they don’t tell you if a food is safe to keep and eat or if it should be tossed. Even perishable foods may be safe to eat beyond their “best by” date as long as you’ve stored them properly.

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Signs of spoilage

Chances are, that can of soup that’s been on your shelf for a couple of years is perfectly fine to eat. But with any food, it’s important to know if it’s gone bad. Eating a spoiled food not only tastes bad, but it can also cause you to become seriously sick. Food poisoning can cause:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Watery or bloody diarrhea
  • Severe stomach pain or cramping
  • Fever
  • Dehydration
  • Headache

Your food may be spoiled if it:

  • Smells bad or has a strange odor
  • Tastes bad
  • Has a slimy film or glossy sheen
  • Looks moldy
  • Is discolored
  • Has a different texture

It’s always best to err on the side of caution and go by your gut feeling. In short, “When in doubt, throw it out.”

Food storage tips and tricks

Here’s how to make the most of the foods that you buy so that you can reduce waste and limit the dent in your wallet:

  • As soon as you open a food package, it becomes perishable. Use foods as quickly as possible once opened.
  • Refrigerate any leftovers in a storage container and aim to use them within three to five days.
  • If the jar, can, or package says to refrigerate after opening, heed those instructions.
  • Never open or use cans that are heavily dented, rusted, bulging, or oozing.
  • Never freeze cans or jars of food.
  • Examine foods in the store before you buy them — stay away from dents in cans or tears in the packaging.
  • Rotate the foods in your pantry or cupboards. Consider writing the date of purchase on them.
  • Refrigerate and use perishable foods promptly after you buy them. Never let meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, or other foods that require refrigeration to sit at room temperature for more than two hours or more than one hour if the air temperature is above 90°F.

Guidelines to gauge freshness

So, in general, how long SHOULD you keep foods? Here’s a quick guide from the FDA and USDA:

Food Eat or Drink Within
Eggs 3-5 weeks when refrigerated
Egg substitutes, unopened 10 days when refrigerated; 1 year when frozen
Milk 1 week when refrigerated; 3 months when frozen
Butter 3 months when refrigerated; 6 months when frozen
Ground beef, pork, turkey 1-2 days when refrigerated; 3-4 months when frozen
Chicken or turkey, fresh 1-2 days when refrigerated; 9 months when frozen
Fatty fish, fresh 1-2 days when refrigerated; 2-3 months when frozen
Cold cuts 2 weeks when refrigerated; 2 months when frozen
Mayonnaise 2 months (opened) when refrigerated; 3 months (unopened) in the pantry
Dry rice and pasta Within 2 years
Canned fruit and high acid
5-7 days (opened) when refrigerated; 12-18 months (unopened) in the pantry
Canned vegetables, low acid 3-4 days (opened) when refrigerated; 2-5 years (unopened) in the pantry

For more information about how long it’s safe to keep foods and beverages, check out the FoodKeeper app for both Apple and Android devices or online.

Want to learn more about eating well with diabetes? Read “Strategies for Healthy Eating,” “Improving Your Recipes: One Step at a Time,” and “Top Tips for Healthier Eating.”

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES on social media

A Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator at Good Measures, LLC, where she is a CDE manager for a virtual diabetes program. Campbell is the author of Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition & Meal Planning, a co-author of 16 Myths of a Diabetic Diet, and has written for  publications including Diabetes Self-Management, Diabetes Spectrum, Clinical Diabetes, the Diabetes Research & Wellness Foundation’s newsletter,, and

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