We’ve all been there — it’s time to clean out the refrigerator and inevitably there’s a container with something you were really looking forward to eating, but it’s past the expiration date. Then you have to decide what to do with it; it looks fine and it doesn’t smell funny, but is it safe to eat? There are certain foods that can be eaten safely past their expiration date but there are others that pose a tremendous risk.
In order to determine which foods you can and cannot eat past their expiration date, you first have to understand the terminology used on food’s packaging. Expiration date shouldn’t be confused with “best before/best if used by” dates or “sell by” dates. “Sell by” and “best before” dates refer specifically to a food’s appearance and flavor; foods consumed past these dates may not look or taste as good as they would have prior but should still be safe to eat. “Use by” dates and expiration dates, however, are indicators of food safety; consuming foods past this date can have negative consequences so you should only eat them if you're sure they're safe.
In general, foods that are processed for an extended shelf life — think canned goods, frozen foods, dried pasta, etc. — are safe if consumed past their expiration date, assuming they were handled and stored correctly. Fresher, less processed foods like eggs, raw meat, fresh fruits, and fresh vegetables have a much shorter shelf life and won’t last as long past their expiration dates — these foods pose more health risks if consumed post-expiration date.
The way that a particular food looks or smells can be a good indicator of its safety but it’s better to discard some foods when they pass their expiration date regardless of their appearance or odor.
Mixed greens and bagged salad mixes (regardless of how many times they are washed prior to purchase) have a tendency to carry certain bacteria associated with poor sanitation because they are handled so frequently. Mixed greens also get a dark, slimy appearance as they expire; a visual cue that they’re no long safe to consume.
Fresh berries often carry a parasite called cyclospora. Always wash berries thoroughly before consuming them and don’t use them past their expiration date or once they begin to break down, whichever comes first.
Kristie Collado is The Daily Meal’s Cook Editor. Follow her on Twitter @KColladoCook.
This story was originally published July 21, 2014.