Have you ever been rooting through your pantry and come across a package that is well past its expiration date? Despite our good intentions, attempts at organization, and careful rotation of supplies, it still happens from time to time.
What about a really amazing sale on a packaged food? Sometimes that good sale is a last-ditch effort to clear out the product before the date. Should you still buy it?
When sorting supplies for my recent relocation, I discovered to my dismay that a couple of items had passed their expiration dates. I was determined to find out whether I needed to throw these items out, or whether the expired food could still be safely consumed.
What You Need to Know About Expiration Dates
Are you sitting down?
The dates on the packages? They don’t mean much of anything.
The only foods that are required by law to have expiration dates are baby food and baby formula. Everything else is voluntary or arbitrary. Although I have suspected this for quite some time and even wrote about it in Make Dating Your Preps a Habit, I decided it was time to dig in a bit further and look for facts rather than supposition.
So what are all of those dates printed on food containers?
- Best Before Date – The “Best Before Date” is, according to the manufacturer, the last date by which a products flavor or quality is best, the optimal time of its shelf life for quality. As noted above, the product may still be enjoyed after the “best before date.” Additionally the manufacturer may call this the “Best if Used By” date or the “Best By” date, which indicates that the quality of food might diminish after that date, but it is still good to eat and the shelf life is still active.
- Use By Date – The “Use By Date” is the last day that the manufacturer vouches for the product’s quality. The use by date is the date the manufacturers recommend to use the product for “peak quality” in the food. So you may eat the food after the use by date, but it likely is not going to be at peak quality.
- Sell By Date – The “Sell By Date” on a product is the items expiration date, the end of its shelf life at the store. This is the last date stores are supposed to display the product for sale, after the Sell By Date the stores should remove the product, the Shelf Life has expired. Although the food product may be used and enjoyed past this date, it is not recommended to purchase a product if the Sell By date has past.
- Shelf Life – The “Shelf Life” of food is used in reference to these common codes (Use by Date, Sell by Date, and Best Before Date). The Shelf Life depends on which code is used and the type of product in question. Please see the specific page for your product to determine the proper shelf life of food because the Shelf Life is different for each particular item!
So with all of this being said, it seems like the dates don’t mean a whole lot. We must rely on our common sense to determine whether or not the expired food is still good to eat. If it smells or tastes “off” it isn’t worth the risk, particularly in a survival situation in which medical assistance may not be available.
Yogurt and deli meat can last a week to 10 days more than the “sell by” date. Salami at two to three weeks. Most fresh meats, especially poultry and seafood, should be cooked and eaten within days. Eggs a whopping five weeks after expiration. When in doubt, gently place eggs in a big bowl of cold water filled to the top. If the eggs float, toss them. If they “stand up” that just means they are not as fresh but are still okay to eat.
Packaged items can last a long time after expiration but after months you may notice a staleness and waxy taste which could be rancid oils. Packaged and canned items can generally last a year or more after the stamped date.
The key to keeping storable foods the longest, is cool, dry and airtight. Canned goods included. If you see bulging cans – do not open! It’s rare, but it could be botulism..
The bottom line is that expiration is perception and to follow your nose and your gut. If something smells or tastes funny, do not risk it! Common sense and intuition are our friends.
If you are curious about the safety of a specific food, Eatbydate.com has a database search function that can help. Simply type in the name of the product and hit search. It will bring up a list of articles that will provide information to help you make your decision. I searched “pasta” to determine the safety of a package that had been tucked away and exceeded its date by nearly a year. I found an article with the following chart, that provided variables like where the pasta had been stored and what type of pasta it was.
Even the USDA agrees that the dates on food can be exceeded. In the following video, a representative from the USDA says that the shelf life can be extended greatly, often between 12-18 months. (Starting at 1:19)
Note: If you are having issues watching this YouTube video, you can also view it here: //youtu.be/qrfTyy3MHTQ?t=1m18s.
The USDA recommends this FREE mobile app to help determine the safety of your packaged food.
The Final Word
Expiration dates are not like the toll of midnight in the tale of Cinderella. They are not set-in-stone times after which the food suddenly decomposes. Edible contents don’t suddenly turn bad on a specific date.
If it smells okay, looks okay, and tastes okay, it probably is okay, regardless of the date on the package. The message today is this: Don’t throw away perfectly good food because of an arbitrary date. Use your common sense to determine whether it seems safe. Avoid the enemies of food storage and follow the best storage practices to lengthen the shelf life of your pantry goods. (You can learn more about food storage practices here.)
What foods have you consumed beyond the date on the package? Did you ever have any issues eating food after that date? As always, please share your experience in the comments.
Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!
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Bargain Bin: Here are some of my favorite food storage items. Whether you are just getting started or a seasoned pro, here are the items you will need when purchasing food in bulk for long term, SHTF needs. And for help with your food storage questions, get my eBook: The Preppers Guide to Food Storage.
FoodSaver Vacuum Sealer: As long as the unit has an accessory port (and this one does), an in expensive FoodSaver will work just as well as the fancier models. That said, right now there are some fantastic deals available for some higher end units. I just purchased this one for myself: FoodSaver 4980 2-in 1 Vacuum Sealing System..
FoodSaver Wide Mouth Jar Sealer: Already have a FoodSaver? If so, check out this jar sealer which can be used to vacuum seal your Mason jars. This is a great option for short to mid term storage of items such as beans, rice, sugar and salt. Store your jars in a cool, dark place and you are set with the added advantage of removing a small amount for current use without having to disrupt your large Mylar bag or bucket of food. There is also a version for regular sized jars. See Fast Track Tip #4: How to Use a FoodSaver for Vacuum Canning.
Mylar bags & Oxygen Absorbers: What I love about Mylar bags and oxygen absorbers is they protect against every single one of the food storage enemies. Prices do vary but for the most part, they are inexpensive and easy to keep on hand. And while you can seal them up with a FoodSaver, some tubing and a common clothes iron, I find it infinitely easier with a cheap hair straightening iron that you can pick up $20 or less.
60 – 300cc Oxygen Absorbers: This is one area where you want to make sure you are getting a quality product. Currently, a pack of 60 (in three 20 unit packs) is about $15 with free shipping.
Ball Regular & Wide Mouth Jar Storage Caps: I must have 30 or 40 of these. I love to use mason jars for panty storage and for those items I go through quickly, I see no need to use the vacuum seal gizmo that goes with my FoodSaver.
Sharpie Permanent Markers: Sharpies were invented for preppers! And without question, Amazon is the cheapest place to buy them. Typically, the price on Amazon is less that $7 for a dozen.
Conair Ceramic Instant Heat 2″ Straightener: An inexpensive hair iron such as this one is perfect for sealing Mylar bags. It can also be used on your hair so it can serve a dual purpose. For an even cheaper alternative, consider this one that works equally well but has smaller blades.
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