Is it Still Good? Tossing Food that has Expired

January 22, 2013 | Jody Gatewood


On New Year’s Eve my husband and I invited some friends over to celebrate. My husband requested that I make chili and white chicken chili for the gathering and offered to help me in the kitchen! We made some other appetizers too, so needed some space in the refrigerator to store all the food. While trying to make space in the refrigerator, my husband started looking at the dates on various bottles and containers, such as a partially eaten bottle of barbeque sauce, and tossed out the old ones. Soon I started looking at dates on the spices I was using. I wasn’t concerned about the spices going bad but that over time their flavor would deteriorate. I decided it was time I get rid of some of the old ones (like the ground ginger I’m sure I moved with us to our current house almost four years ago!) and purchase new ones.

Deciding what needs to go and what is still okay to eat can be confusing when it comes to certain foods like spices and canned foods. And the different dates printed on food containers don’t help much. Some say “sell –by” others say “best if used by”. So if I buy or use the food after these dates, is it a food safety concern or will the food just not be as fresh? The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) does a good job explaining the dating on food containers. Something I learned while reading thru this information is that, except for infant formula, product dating is not generally required by federal regulations. Some states have requirements, while others have none. However, even though it isn’t required everywhere, many food manufacturers do put dates on their products. Below is what some of the dates mean:

  • A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.
  • A “Best if Used By (or Before)” date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.
  • “Closed or coded dates” are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer.

These codes are used more for food quality, not food safety.  As far as safety is concerned, perishable foods like meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs are the most vulnerable. We recommend you eat food by the “use-by date”. Before I taught my husband, he thought you could use the ‘smell test’ to tell if something was safe to eat. However, you can’t see, smell, or taste bacteria that cause foodborne illnesses.  If you aren’t going to be able to use a food before the “use-by” date, freeze it.

For eggs, always purchase them before the “sell-by” date on the carton. When you get home, refrigerate the eggs in the coldest part of the refrigerator (on a shelf towards the back), in the original container. Use the eggs within 3 to 5 weeks of when you purchased them.

So what about canned goods and other non-perishable items? High-acid foods such as tomatoes will have the best quality if used within 12 to 18 months. Low-acid foods such as meat, fish, or vegetables will retain the best quality if used within 2-5 years. This is if the can remains in good condition and is stored in a cool, clean, dry place. Use the FIFO method to be sure to use up the oldest cans first. FIFO stands for first in, first out. So when putting away groceries, place the recently purchased items behind the existing food. Home-canned foods should be used within one year for best quality.

As far as ground spices and herbs, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says they keep for about one year. One way to tell if they are fresh and will have good flavor is if when you open them you can smell their aroma. If you can’t, it’s time to replace (so it was time to get rid of my ground ginger!). Keep dried spices and herbs in a cool, dark, dry place.


Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys spending time in the kitchen baking and preparing meals for her family. She does lots of meal planning to stay organized and feed her family nutritious meals.

More Posts