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Food Expiration Dates: What Do They Really Mean?
To Toss or Not to Toss
- Unprocessed pantry foods—These include foods like pastas, cereal, baking mixes, dry beans, grains, and nuts. If they have been stored unopened and have no damage to their packaging, these shelf-stable foods should be good for a up to a year. After opening, store these products in airtight containers to keep out insects, humidity, and odors.
- Processed pantry foods—These are considered shelf stable because they have either been heat treated (canned foods), are a dry formulation (cake mixes), or have reduced water content (dried foods, crackers). The quality of these products should be fine until opened. But, watch out for cans that develop cracks at the seams, bulge, or spurt liquid when opened. These changes may indicate the presence of a toxin that causes botulism. If this happens, the cans should be discarded. Note also that certain processed pantry foods must be refrigerated once you have opened them.
- Meat, fish, and poultry—Store meat, fish, and poultry in the coldest part of the refrigerator (generally in the “meat keeper” drawer or toward the back of the bottom shelf), wrapped in foil, leak-proof plastic bags, or airtight containers. Fresh poultry, seafood, and ground or chopped meat can be refrigerated for 1-2 days before cooking. Fresh red meat, and cooked poultry, can be refrigerated for 3-4 days. Lunch meats can be refrigerated for 3-5 days once opened and hotdogs can be refrigerated for about 1 week. Freeze any meat if you will not be using it within these time frames.
- Eggs—If you have purchased a carton of eggs before the date expires, you should be able to use them safely for 3-5 weeks. Eggs should be stored in their original carton on a shelf, not in the door (where it is not as cold).
- Dairy products—Milk, cheese, yogurt, and butter tend to spoil quickly once their dates have passed. Like eggs, these products should be stored on a shelf, not in the door.
- Fruits and veggies—Raw fruits and vegetables may last anywhere from a couple days to a few weeks before spoiling. For best quality, store ripe fruit in the refrigerator or you can prepare it and then freeze it. Some dense raw vegetables, such as potatoes and onions, can be stored in cabinets at cool room temperatures. Other types of raw vegetable should be refrigerated. After cooking, vegetables should be refrigerated or frozen within two hours.
- If you plan to freeze your food, do not wait to do so. Freezing it right away will help keep the product at its peak quality.
- Freeze food in either its original packaging or packed in freezer bags or heavy-duty foil for maximum freshness.
- “Freezer-burned” foods are generally still safe to eat. Cut freezer-burned portions away either before or after cooking.
What to Do If You Suspect a Foodborne Illness
The Bottom Line
Food Safety http://www.foodsafety.gov
Partnership for Food Safety Education http://www.fightbac.org
Dietitians of Canada http://www.dietitians.ca
Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education http://www.canfightbac.org
Consumer updates: Are you storing your food safely? US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/forconsumers/consumerupdates/ucm093704.htm. Updated September 24, 2013. Accessed September 24, 2013.
Foodborne illnesses. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse website. Available at: http://www.digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/bacteria/. Updated August 10, 2012. Accessed September 24, 2013.
Food product dating. US Department of Agriculture website. Available at: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/food-labeling/food-product-dating/food-product-dating. Updated August 9, 2013. Accessed September 24, 2013.
Food safety: food storage, preparation & handling. USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service website. Available at: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/frame-redirect?url=/wps/wcm/connect/FSIS-Content/fsis-questionable-content/food-safety/food-storage-preparation-and-handling/CT%5FIndex. Updated July 5, 2013. Accessed September 24, 2013.
Food safety prevention and education. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/prevention.html. Updated September 6, 2013. Accessed September 24, 2013.
Mead PS, Slutsker L, Dietz V, et al. Food-related illness and death in the United States. Emerging Infectious Diseases. 1999;5:607-625.
- Reviewer: Michael Woods, MD
- Review Date: 09/2013
- Update Date: 00/92/2013