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Asked by Todd L Ross in
Food Spoilage
Grocery Shopping
Food Storage and Preservation
Food & Cooking

How long can I eat food after its expiration date?

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Todd L Ross
August 16, 2019 2:31PM

You can eat most foods after their expiration date, but dozens of factors can affect food spoilage.

Contrary to popular belief, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t require manufacturers to list an “expiration,” “use by,” or “sell by" date, with one notable exception that we’ll cover in a moment. Some states require the labels on some foods, but for the most part, manufacturers apply them at their own discretion.

Manufacturers want consumers to have a reliably good experience, so they’ll often set expiration dates for when food changes slightly in texture or taste, not for when food becomes dangerous. With that in mind, here are some guidelines for considering the expiration dates of common foods.

  • Canned Foods -

    Commercially canned foods store well, and their expiration dates refer to their “peak quality,” not the last date of safe use.

    Low-acid foods like canned tuna, green vegetables, and soups can be safely stored for two to five years, per foodsafety.gov, but high-acid foods only keep for about 12 to 18 months. Foods that aren’t commercially canned should be consumed within a year.

  • Meats -

    Watch for signs of spoilage, including discoloration, slimy residue, and foul odors. Generally, you should cook or freeze fresh meat within a few days of purchase, but appearance and odor are far better indicators of safety than the “use by" date.

  • Frozen Foods -

    Provided that you’re storing your food at temperatures of 0 degrees Fahrenheit or below, you can safely eat them after thawing and cooking them. However, meats may degrade in quality after four months to a year (three to four months for hamburger and other processed meats), and frozen leftovers will typically start to degrade in one to six months.

    Foodsafety.gov has more information for various types of frozen foods, but remember, the guidelines are for food quality only—dangerous microorganisms won’t grow on frozen food, so you can technically eat any frozen food.

  • Dry Pasta -

    Spaghetti and other dry pastas will keep for one to two years, provided that you store them in a cool, dry place. Fresh pasta is generally fine for four to five days past the “best by" date, provided that you don’t see any mold or other signs of spoilage.

  • Cereal -

    Unopened cereal is often edible for weeks or months after its expiration date, but cereals with high fat content—for instance, cereals with nuts and seeds—are more likely to go rancid. Store cereal in a cool, dry place, preferably in an airtight container. If your cereal is exposed to moisture, throw it away.

  • Eggs -

    Eggs are typically safe to eat for four to five weeks after the date they were packaged. When an egg goes bad, you’ll know; they give off a rancid odor that’s fairly unmistakable.

    To test an egg without breaking it, submerge it in a glass of water. If the egg lays flat, it’s perfectly fine. If it stands on one end, it’s probably edible, but not fresh. If it floats, throw it out.

  • Milk -

    The Dairy Council of California clarifies that the date on the carton is a “sell by” limit, and that it’s usually safe to drink milk that’s past due. How long? Well, that depends on how safely you’ve stored and treated the milk since purchasing it.

    Basically, once you buy a jug of milk, drive it straight home; refrigeration is key. Store the milk in a fridge that maintains a temperature between 38 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Don’t leave the carton out on the counter between uses.

    The experts are wary of getting too specific on how long milk is safe past its “sell by” date, pointing out that the industry standard on milk quality (not safety, notice) is between 21 and 24 days after pasteurization—but that some states impose a sell by limit of no more than 12 days post-pasteurization. In short, the case will vary widely based on where you are, how you treat your milk, and even how cold you keep your fridge.

    A Cornell University food safety professor found that dialing down the refrigeration temperature from 42.8 degrees to 39.2 degrees reduced milk spoilage after 21 days considerably. In short...it depends.

    Maybe the best advice comes from the Dairy Council of California again. If milk is past its “sell by” date, they suggest, just give it a quick sniff test. If it smells bad, don’t drink it.

  • Cheese -

    Most cheeses last beyond their expiration date. If a cheese becomes discolored or if it develops a colored mold, throw it out (blue cheeses naturally develop colored mold, so you can still safely eat them as long as the mold isn’t concentrated in a particular spot).

    Small spots of mold usually aren’t a big deal; cut off the moldy part plus one-eighth to one-fourth of an inch, and you’re usually in good shape. Pre-grated cheeses like Parmesan can often go for months without developing mold, since they’re made from an aged (and therefore dry) cheese to begin with.

  • Infant Formula -

    The FDA does require expiration dates for infant formula, and you should not use expired formula—not because it’s dangerous, but because it may not provide adequate nutrition. The ingredients in the formula degrade over time, so throw it out after the “use by" date.

The average American throws out almost a pound of food per day, and much of that food is perfectly usable—it’s simply past its labeled expiration date, so people assume that it’s inedible. To stay safe, do a bit of research before eating any expired food, and if the item smells, looks, or tastes funny, throw it out.