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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), foodborne diseases cause an estimated 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year. Unfortunately, ]]>foodborne illness]]> (food poisoning) often presents with flu-like symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, and is dismissed as such. So, while it’s true that almost any food can become contaminated if handled improperly, foods that are purchased or used after their expiration dates may be more likely to contain spoilage bacteria or other pathogens that can cause a foodborne illness.

To Toss or Not to Toss

The expiration dates on foods reflect when to buy or use a product at its best quality . So, while you won’t necessarily get sick from eating expired food, its freshness and nutrient value may be diminished. Therefore, the trick is to know how long a product is safe to eat after its expiration date. The following tips may help:

The Cupboard

Pantry, or shelf stable (nonperishable) foods, like cereal, baking mixes, and peanut butter may display “best if used by (or before)” dates. These indicate the shelf-life of a product—they tell you when a product is no longer at peak flavor, texture, and appearance. You can safely eat most of these types of foods past their listed date if they’ve been stored properly, but they may not taste their best or be as nutritious. There are two major categories of pantry foods, unprocessed and processed:

  • Unprocessed pantry foods : These include pastas, cereal, baking mixes, dry beans, grains, and nuts. If they have been stored unopened, these shelf stable foods should be good to eat indefinitely unless the packaging has been damaged. After opening, store these products in airtight containers to keep out insects, humidity, and other odors, and to keep in flavor.

  • 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 also 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 bacterium called Clostridium botulinum , the toxin that causes ]]>botulism]]> . If this happens, the cans should be discarded. Note also that certain processed pantry foods must be refrigerated once you’ve opened them.

To keep these foods at their best quality, store them in clean, dry, cool (below 85°F) cabinets away from the stove or the refrigerator's exhaust.

The Refrigerator

“Sell-By (or Pull)” dates on refrigerated foods like milk and chicken tell stores how long to display the product for sale and take into account additional storage time at home. If possible, it’s best to buy a product before this date.

“Use-By” dates indicate the last day recommended for use of a perishable product while at peak quality. Try to avoid buying foods that are already past this date, even though most are generally still safe to eat. Simply check the item first for an off odor, a strange appearance, or an unpleasant flavor.

Here’s how to store your perishable foods:

  • 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 one to two days before cooking. Fresh red meat, cooked poultry, and meat leftovers can be refrigerated for three to five days, and processed meat products (lunch meats) for three to seven days. Freeze any meat if you won’t be using it within these time frames.

  • Eggs : If you’ve purchased a carton of eggs before the date expires, you should be able to use them safely for three to five weeks after expiration. Eggs should be stored in their original carton on a shelf, not in the door (where it’s 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, onions, and tomatoes can be stored in cabinets at cool room temperatures. Other types of raw vegetable should be refrigerated. After cooking, all vegetables must be refrigerated or frozen within two hours.

Always keep your refrigerator at or just below 40°F. And don't overload the fridge—this prevents air from circulating freely and cooling foods evenly.

The Freezer

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), frozen foods are safe indefinitely, so their expiration dates apply only to quality and nutritional value. But, make sure the items are frozen solid without signs of thawing. Otherwise:

  • If you plan to freeze your food, don’t 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 the food.

The Countertop

Bakery items (which should have a “sell-by” date) that contain custards, meat, vegetables, or frostings made of cream cheese, whipped cream, or eggs should be kept refrigerated. Any bread product not containing these ingredients, or those that contain eggs but have been baked (like muffins), can safely be kept at room temperature. These foods should be good for about a week. However, if you begin to see signs of mold, they should be tossed.

What to Do If You Suspect a Foodborne Illness

Contaminated foods can cause illness within a few minutes or up to a few days after consumption. Look for symptoms such as fever, headache, chills, vomiting, nausea, irregular heartbeat, or difficulty breathing. While most foodborne illnesses are short-lived and require no medical treatment, others can be serious or even life threatening. If you suspect food poisoning, you should talk to a doctor immediately. This is especially important for pregnant women, young children, the elderly, and immunocompromised people, who are more likely than others to experience severe illness or complications. In addition, any incidence of suspected food poisoning should be reported to your local health department immediately.

The Bottom Line

Regardless of the date on any product always be on the lookout for spoilage. If a food smells funny to you or has something growing on it that you think shouldn’t be there, throw it out immediately.

Most foods are not only safe to eat, but are also acceptable in terms of taste, aroma, and appearance beyond the expiration date printed on the label. By following these guidelines, you should be able to determine how long foods are good to eat.