If you're aiming to reduce waste in your home and also to save money, one recurring dilemma might be whether or not it's safe to use food that has passed its printed expiration date—even if the food itself looks and smells safe. Expiration dates complicate the issue as the language used on packaging across common kitchen staples is very different and is not regulated. Armed with a bit of expert knowledge and an insider's know-how, however, you'll know that you can still enjoy ingredients that have "expired"—helping you to save money and, most importantly, avoid sending perfectly edible ingredients into a landfill.
"If products are consumed beyond [the expiration date], they are not necessarily unsafe for consumption," says Tamika Sims, PhD, director of food technology communications at the International Food Information Council Foundation. "Consumers should examine the food… before deciding to throw it away." Sims says understanding which kinds of items you can still enjoy after their expiration date starts with understanding what kind of label is on the package itself. Food manufacturers and producers often use "best if used by" dates to let shoppers know when they should cook, freeze, or eat the item for quality concerns—but not in the interest of safety or health.
"The 'best if used by' date is needed to indicate when the product can be consumed for the best quality—these dates are different for products based on their manufacturing processes, how they are packaged, if they are kept frozen, chilled, or are made to be on shelf," Sims says. "Plus, how they are stored before they reach the store impacts this date as well. Neither the 'best if used by' or the 'use by' date are safety dates: They both indicate quality."
Expiration dates are set at the discretion of food producers. Food safety experts, including Donald Schaffner, Ph.D, a distinguished professor at Rutgers University, have been campaigning for a system of standardized language in the hopes of preventing unnecessary food waste.
Beyond infant formula, which is the only item to be regulated with hard expiration dates (because nutrients in formulas may deteriorate over time, and infants could die of malnutrition if they're continuously fed expired formula), Schaffner says the industry isn't currently following a guide when creating any of the expiration dates printed on groceries. "All of the other dates are set by manufacturers, who have their own internal processes, which are normally set for quality reasons," said Schaffner. "Basically, and this is something that I practice in my own home, as long as I'm storing the foods appropriately, I'm not going to worry about "best by" or "use by" dates.
Schaffner says when it comes to common perishable foods like dairy, many home cooks get hung up on the idea of sickness and harmful bacteria. Generally, people aren't putting their health at risk by eating or drinking "expired" dairy products—they're simply ingesting items that don't taste as great as they normally would. "Let's take milk as an example: I don't particularly like the taste of spoiled milk, but if the milk has been properly pasteurized, the only risk present after its printed expiration date is that I'm going to take a sip of milk that doesn't taste good," Schaffner says.
Both Schaffner and Sims agree that nearly any perishable food is safe to eat up to a week after its "best by" date—and for goods with a longer shelf life, maybe up to a month. "You have much less leeway with foods that have a very short shelf life, like milk. Shelf-stable food, like cereal, may have an expiration date that can be up to a year after you've first purchased it," Schaffner says. "That should give you a clue as to how much leeway you have with an item after its "best buy" date has passed."
While Schaffner advocates using foods past their quality dates, he suggests more caution with deli meats: "We know that, holistically, deli meats have often provided issues with a bacteria called listeria monocytogenes." Schaffner says. Listeria can grow in a refrigerator, even if it's at 40 degrees fahrenheit and he explains that deli meats are often cooked and sterilized before being placed into airtight packaging. If, for whatever reason, that deli product is exposed to the environment after being processed, there's a good chance that listeria bacteria could find its way into the meat, and then continue to grow in the refrigerator. While this is rare, it is an issue that Schaffner says leads him to follow the quality/use by dates with deli meats.