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When Does Food Really Expire?
You probably have had the experience of taking milk out of the refrigerator and noting that it is two days past its sell-by date, or taking a can out of your cabinet and finding that it “expired” a month ago. So does that mean you need to waste money by throwing those foods out?
Not necessarily, the experts say. There are two basic considerations. The first is whether a food is unsafe to eat because of bacteria or other pathogens. The other is whether a food might have lost some of its flavor or freshness, but still be safe to eat. And those two are rarely the same thing.
Most food is marked with a sell-buy or a best-buy date. These do not mean that you should not eat the food after that date; they mean you should not buy it then. But most foods are safe to eat for a period of time after the printed dates, assuming they are stored and handled properly.
And most experts also agree that some foods are safe to eat indefinitely. For example, bacteria cannot develop inside a canned food item that is not open. So as long as there is no evidence of a rupture or other damage to the can, it should be safe to open and eat the contents.
Similarly, food that is properly frozen should be safe to eat indefinitely, since bacteria cannot live in the temperature of your freezer. However, it might become dried out or “freezer-burned” over time, and thus not taste as good.
Of course, if there are signs that a food has spoiled, such as an odd smell or mold, you should toss it. But if a food looks and smells OK, here are some basic guidelines for some common foods:
Finally, experts advise that the most important food safety consideration is proper handling. Don’t leave meat to thaw on the counter. Don’t use the same surfaces or utensils to cut raw meat and other foods. Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly, even those with rinds.
- Eggs should be safe to eat for at least three weeks after the sell-by date, as long as they are properly refrigerated. Put them in the main part of the refrigerator rather than the door, though, because the door is warmer than the interior of the fridge. And if they smell bad when you crack them, don't use them.
- Canned goods should maintain their freshness – which is different from their safety – for at least a year past the expiration date.
- Apples have a long shelf life – at least three weeks – if they are properly refrigerated.
- Breakfast cereals should remain fresh for at least six months. Even after that, they might go stale but they will not be dangerous to eat.
- Meat is safe in the refrigerator for up to five days after purchase; poultry should be used within one to two days. But if you freeze meat, it will still be flavorful when thawed for up to several months.