“Food-borne illness comes from the contamination of food by salmonella, listeria, and other pathogens,” agriculture and food expert Dana Gunders, who co-authored a recent report on food labeling by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, tells Yahoo Shine. “They get on the food during production and processing. That’s what leads to people being sick, not the age of the food.” Many foods will still be OK to eat after their “use by” date has long expired, even meat and milk.
While most people think that food labeling is regulated, the Federal Food and Drug Administration oversees only the labeling of baby formula. Everything else is at the discretion of the food producer or seller.
Widespread labeling came about during the 1970s, long after the majority of American consumers had transitioned from growing their own food or purchasing food from farms and local shops to buying from large supermarkets. “The demand for labels came out of a concern about freshness. They were never meant to be about safety,” says Gunders. In fact, expiration dates aren’t a guarantee of safety at all, since they were designed to simply indicate peak quality.
There are actually two types of food labels. “Sell by” dates are meant to tell retailers when the manufacturer recommends that they rotate stock. “Use by” or “best by” dates, meanwhile, indicate freshness to the consumer. “For most products, it’s up to the manufacturer,” says Gunders. “Some may use actual lab tests, but that’s pretty rare. They might do consumer taste testing or they might guess according to how competitors are labeling.”
In my own refrigerator, a sealed glass jar of salsa reads “best by April 24, 2014.” What exactly happens on April 25? When it comes to eating so-called expired food, Gunders and other experts say you can indeed consume many foods past their expiration dates if you eyes, nose, and a healthy serving of common sense.
“Smell the food,” food safety expert Ted Labuza tells Yahoo Shine. Labuza, who teaches food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota says the key to ensuring a longer shelf life is controlling the storage temperature and preventing exposure to moisture and oxygen. Before you toss something out, check out this list of just some of the items that will last beyond their expiration dates, if you follow a few simple steps.
Meat. Labuza keeps his refrigerator at between 32 and 34 degrees, lower than the generally recommended 40 degrees. This gives meat a 50 percent longer shelf life, he says. Labuza points out that stores don’t scientifically determine the use-by date of fresh meat, but follow what their competitors are doing.
Milk. Pasteurized milk also lasts 50 percent longer when stored at a lower temperature.
Canned goods. The label generally gives a shelf life of about three years. If you keep cans in a cool place (not above the stove) they will last about seven years. Always discard dented cans. Jarred and bottled goods will also last longer than their best date if kept in a cool place.
Frozen food. “I never look at the dates, I just eat it,” says Labuza. Freezing kills all of the microbes that cause spoilage, although food will develop ice crystals (freezer burn) if there is an air space inside the packaging.
Dry goods such as crackers and corn chips. If they have a stale texture, crisp them up in a toaster oven. If they smell “barnyard-y” or rancid, the oils have spoiled and it’s best to discard.
Eggs. Place in a bowl of water. If an egg floats, it’s gone bad, but if it sinks, it’s still edible, even if that expiration date passed you by weeks ago.
Pasta. Keep pasta in clear packaging in a dark, cool place which will increase shelf life and also retain nutrients, including riboflavin, that are light sensitive.
Bread. Keeping bread and other wheat-flour based foods in the freezer dramatically extends shelf life.
Packaged greens. If your lettuce is wilted but not visibly decayed, you can revive it by soaking in ice water for about 10 minutes.
One caveat: Prepared foods and processed meats can pick up pathogens while being produced. Gunders warns that prepared foods such as a deli sandwich or processed meats can harbor listeria that proliferates even when stored in the refrigerator. Use such foods quickly and never serve processed meats such as hot dogs or sausages (including those labeled pre-cooked) raw, especially to small children, the elderly, or anyone who has a compromised immune system. The good news: Cooking will kill surface bacteria.