What You Need to Know About Eating Expired Food

Avatar Gaye Levy  |  Updated: December 16, 2020
What You Need to Know About Eating Expired Food

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 Eating Expired Food | Backdoor Survival

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?

The website Eatbydate.com defines the terms in an article called The Big Myth.

  • 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.

Heather Callaghan of Natural Blaze wrote:

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.

How Long Does Pasta Last Shelf Life Storage Expiration

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!

If you enjoyed this article, consider subscribing to email updates. When you do, you will receive a free, downloadable copy of my e-Book, The Emergency Food Buyer’s Guide.

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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 for very cheap.

60 – 300cc Oxygen Absorbers: This is one area where you want to make sure you are getting a quality product.

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!

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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32 Responses to “What You Need to Know About Eating Expired Food”

  1. I regularly eat Progresso soups that are up to 24 months past the printed date, and I’m still here. I’ve also used 15 month expired Stewed Tomatoes in a casserole, but I smelled it, tasted a dab of the juice then cooked it thoroughly in the oven. I did open a 12+ month expired can of baked beans and saw they had gone grey, so into the trash it went.

    In good times, I’d say if there is anything not quite right with a can of food, then it’s better safe than sorry and toss it out. But if SHTF, then the food has to be in bad shape for me to get rid of it – say a bulging can which as pointed out in this blog entry most likely means botulism. If it’s not bulging, cooking thoroughly can help break down some toxins (including botulism toxin), so having plenty of cooking fuel or solar ovens can help increase the safety of older foods….

    Thanks for yet another good prepping article Gaye!

    • I have used Bush’s Chili Beans 2 years past expiration date. I opened them, tasted them and they tasted fresh so I used them. I am still here 🙂

    • RE: Botulinum Toxin: Cooking above 190°F / 90°C for at least 10-15 minutes tends to degrade botulism toxins, but I would only recommend this in extreme necessity (i.e. starvation). That bacteria specie isn’t a joke, and botulism toxins can kill in extremely small doses.

  2. I’ve regularly eaten canned and dry packaged food that was 3 to 4 years old and once ate canned soup that was 10 years old – no problems – looked fine, smelled fine, tasted fine. on the other hand, I’ve had canned tomatoes and canned pineapple spring leaks after less than a year. Highly acidic foods will sometimes just corrode through the cans.

  3. I have to admit that this is one of my Achilles heels. Not rotating stock frequently enough. Not to say I have canned beans that are 20 years old, but I was trying to rotate early and often and sometimes miss a piece or two.

  4. Not to long ago a group of scientist found a 100+ yr long ship full of canned goods. They tested each and ever can. Each can was still good to eat. The food had changed in color and lost most of it taste. There was not any toxins found. The boat was buried in mud.

  5. i have eaten plenty of canned tuna and other products well past their dates .I totally agree about the crackers comment i onceleta box go unnoticed and was well past the date they tasted AWFUL .keep everything in a dark dry cool place and it will be fine

  6. Dry canning in the oven will still only keep sealed crackers about 9-12 months.
    I know!!!
    I dry can in mason jars for 2 hours @ 225° and vacuum seal.

  7. Last week I unearthed a can of tomato juice hidden in the back of the cabinet. The expiration date was April 2012. I know tomato products can corrode metal cans but I didn’t see any rust or bulging. It looked and smelled just fine when I poured it, so I drank up! Pay attention and use good sense when you’re eating expired foods and you’ll be fine.

  8. When I was in Vietnam in 1967 to 1969 we initially were eating canned C-Rations that were made early in the 1950’s. 12 years old. Tasted okay – no one got sick. By 1969 we were eating recently canned C-Rats. When people say they need to throw out perfectly good food a year or two old I cannot believe the silliness. Do you think the military replaces the food stored for war every year or so?

    The same story goes for medications. Untold amounts are stored by the military for emergencies. The DOD has tested medications yearly and found they last for years. In a true emergency figure 10 years. And antibiotics lose a bit of potency over time so increase the dosage for older antibiotics but they certainly won’t hurt you. In an emergencies use you common sense.

    Enough said. Viet-vet.

  9. Until I saw that picture I have never seen an “Expiration Date” on a can of food.
    Several years ago we bought cases or flats of canned veggies and fruit. That was a mistake. Now we often open cans after the “Best By Date. As much as 12 months. We inspect everything very closely. So far we have only had to throw out 1 can of Orange Slices. Now we never buy canned goods without looking at the “Best By Date”. If it is not at least 9 months from now, we won’t usually purchase more then 2. We also use 1 and buy 2 to keep those “Best By Dates” well into the future.
    I also keep a spread sheet of our “pantry” that includes “Best Buy Dates”. So if we grab a can of soup we will know that it is the oldest can of that brand and type of soup we have.

  10. My mother passed away a couple of years ago. In her closet was a case of green beans, 22 years old. We ate everyone, tasted perfect! I wouldn’t worry about modern canned goods unless the seal was broken, bulging or showing rust. Or didn’t smell or taste right!

  11. I buy and sell in date, and out of date foods. You get them from reclamation centers that buy damaged goods, goods nearing their best by dates, unusual items that weren’t big sellers, and overstocks. Save a lot of money and I make good money doing it. Always a supply and always a demand.

  12. I’d like to see a similar analysis on the expiration date of drugs, both prescription and over-the-counter. They seem awfully conservative to me — and I can see a strong economic motive to pull them in on the part of drug companies.

    • There is some good information on the web concerning drug “expiration” dates; including a great article by Dr. Bones. (//www.doomandbloom.net/straight-talk-about-expiration-dates/). The US Government which spends billions on stockpiled drugs also conducted a Service Life Extension study on various drugs and although they did not make the results public (protecting the pharmaceutical industry???) – some information has leaked out.

  13. I agree with all of the folks who eat “expired” foods. I buy canned goods at the store when they are on sale, and I also can my own vegetables. I have eaten home-canned tomatoes and peaches that are over 10 years old and have never had an issue with them. I’ve found that home-canned tomatoes in glass jars retain their color and flavor for many years. I would be hesitant about keeping store bought tomatoes and other acidic foods in metal cans for a long time as the acid in those foods can react with the metal can, but in glass containers they last for years as the only metal part is the lid.

  14. Pasta and dry rice are two storage foods that seem to have ridiculous expiration dates. With no oil to speak of in them, shouldn’t they keep almost forever? I do know that dried beans will take a LOT longer cook time to soften if left in the pantry for years.

    • Supposedly they take no longer than normal when stored sealed with an O2 absorber. I suppose I should break open a package I packed away 5 years ago and give them a test. Pinto beans for dinner kind of sounds good right now.

    • Let us know! So how long do you think one should save, say, white Basmati rice. I has no bran or germ, right, so it should have no oil and keep pretty much forever, I would think. Especially if sealed with an O2 absorber.

    • I have cooked rice that was over 5 years old and it was fine. This was before I even knew about O2 absorbers. As long as it is packaged so the bugs can not get to it, rice sealed with an oxygen absorber should last a long time.

      My “old” pintos are back at home in Washington State but I will definitely break some out, cook them using standard methods, and report back.

    • The biggest problem with dry goods like flour, pasta, rice and dry beans is bugs … These products usually come from the factory already infested. There are a couple of fixes: I like to remove the original packaging (especially cardboard) and repackage then freeze the product for 4 days or longer. I also repackage with diatomaceous earth (pasta, cereals, grains) and/or an O2 absorbent in a vacuum pack. It sounds like work, but if you’ve ever opened your last package of pasta to find it full of weevils, you will appreciate the extra time you took to package properly. Side note: cardboard has no place in long term storage – boxes brought home from stores are a terrific way to load up on roaches particularly!

    • Obviously pest control is a good reason for vacuum sealing, but does it do anything to extend the self life of dry goods? I ask because I have boxes of pasta, rice tec. and a mom with a vacuum sealer. Thank you

  15. I discovered the hard way that products containing “baking powder” are not very appealing after the best by date. I was told by one manufacturer that baking powder loses its effect after so many months – hence, that jalapeno corn bread mix won’t look like the picture on the box once the mix is past its best by or use by date. If you want to store baking powder for emergency use, opt for its two ingredients instead. Store cream of tartar and baking soda separately then mix when needed.

  16. I’ve eaten single-serve size yogurts that were 3-6 months past their expiration date. I of course checked them thoroughly first, but all had the same texture and taste they have new.

  17. I buy discounted meat… the meat that is at the shelf life… and when I get them home, I cut open one side of the wrapping, and seal it in a vacuum bag. By just opening one side, I keep it in its original packaging, so you can see what it is and the date without the sharpie, plus the Styrofoam from the packaging is a great insulator for being in the freezer and prolongs the time it can be in the freezer without getting freezer “burnt”. I’ve eaten meat years old. its great when you find a good deal on meat but you know you wont eat all of it. Yes, I know its not feasible for a no “electricity” scenario but its a money saver so wanted to share. as others, I always repackage other “bulk” items after bringing them home, especially if they are in boxes and seal them in seal bags. I even do this with normal items due to weevils with Ziploc bags. I always use eggs after the expiration date.. they last longer after coating with oil, even without refrigeration. just keep cool, like in a root cellar. I did trial this and did eat eggs that were about 3 months old and tasted fine. I did use the water trick first though and they smelled and tasted fine.

  18. I live out of the local food banks. Many times the food there is either right on the virge, or past the date. I have tons of food YEARS past the date and the food is still good. It just all depends on what the item is…and if the first bite is stale, or it smells stale or rancid, it gets tossed. No harm no fowl!

  19. I always appreciate y’alls comments here. Been at this awhile but still learning. Expired foods> Based on my research (some already mentioned here), and my own experience, I just don’t worry about it. Your good sense will get you thru a lot. I sharpie date everything. Look, smell, taste (or not), will tell you all U need to know. I’ve eaten salad dressing exp 10yrs, Milk exp 1 mth, cottage chs and yogurt exp 1 year, Miracle Whip exp 2 yr, etc. PS: At the store dairy is last; at home, 1st put away with all 3 fridges set @ 34*, freezers @ 0* I know some of this will gross y’all out but the fact is, I’m 78 yrs old, in really good shape (for the shape I’m in), and I’ll bet most of you will get the point I’m tryin to make. Oh, fore I go, I have a rolling can rack that holds and rotates about 200 cans ; went to get a can yesterday, and found (back up the line) a leaker(pasta) ; last time it was soup. Also found a lg can of peaches all bulging but hadn’t blown(what a mess that would have been), so just a remainder to check your stuff every now and then so it don’t get real messy on ya. Wishin y’all the best, thru this 2020 mess . Keep your powder dry.

  20. Hey folk, any of ya heard from Left Coast Chuck lately? Haven’t seen any posts for awhile. A little concerned.

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