With the holidays around the corner, you’re probably making your shopping list for the big feast. While checking your cupboards for supplies, you find a bag of stuffing mix with a “best by” date of Nov. 1, 2015. Is it still safe to use on Thanksgiving?
Surprisingly, yes. In most cases, eating food that has been on the shelf — or even in the fridge — past the date on the package won’t put you at high risk for food-borne illness, says Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist and associate professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
Then why are best-by, sell-by, use-by and other dates plastered all over food packaging?
“Most consumers don’t realize that [these dates are] really more about food quality than food safety,” says Robert Gravani, a professor of food science at Cornell University and co-creator of the Department of Agriculture’s new USDA FoodKeeper app.
A food may not be at its peak after the date on the package, but staleness, color changes and the like are quality problems, not safety concerns. Foods may develop mold, become rancid or spoil in other ways, but they are likely to look, smell and taste disgusting before they become unsafe.
As for safety, though, you can’t automatically assume that chicken or ground beef is guaranteed not to contain harmful bacteria before the label date. The truth is, the bugs responsible for the annual 48 million illnesses and 3,000 deaths from food-borne pathogens don’t cause spoilage. If they’re in a food, they’ll be there even when it’s fresh. And unlike mold, sliminess and other signs of spoilage, you can’t see or smell them.
To help consumers, the USDA offers these general definitions:
“Sell by.” Manufacturers suggest that retailers remove the product from shelves by this date. The goal: to assure quality for a period of time after the consumer buys it. That can be several days to several weeks, depending on the food. For instance, milk, assuming proper refrigeration, should last five to seven days past the sell-by date before turning sour.
“Best by” and “use by.” These terms tell the consumer when to eat (or freeze) a food for best quality. For example, a jar of salsa may not taste as fresh and tangy as it’s supposed to or crackers may be soft instead of crisp after those dates.
But in the majority of cases, manufacturers decide on the terms and dates, based on their own product testing. In many cases, the dates are conservative and you may notice no quality difference, especially if the date recently passed.
Focus on these five tips to stay safe during the holidays and throughout the year:
Watch out for mold. Some types cause allergies or respiratory problems; others can produce mycotoxins that can make you sick. Even if the mold is in one spot, discard the food. (Skip the sniff test; certain mold spores can be inhaled.)
There are some exceptions. Surface mold on hard salami and dry-cured country hams can be scrubbed off. Also, for hard cheeses (such as cheddar and Parmesan), firm vegetables (such as bell peppers and carrots) and cheeses made with mold (such as Gorgonzola), you can cut off the mold and about an inch around it and use the rest of the food.
Know how to battle the bad bugs. Keep raw meat cold (37 degrees or colder) and cooked meat warm (140 degrees or warmer) to prevent bacterial growth. Defrost meat in the fridge, cook it thoroughly and refrigerate leftovers within two hours. Don’t let raw meat or its juices touch other foods, and wash your hands, cutting boards and utensils in warm, soapy water.
Use a meat thermometer. Tricks such as wiggling the turkey leg and checking the color of roast beef are unreliable. You need to be sure that meat has reached a safe temperature: 145 degrees for beef roasts, pork roasts and fresh ham (140 degrees for precooked hams that you reheat) and 165 degrees for chicken and turkey.
Consider avoiding certain foods. “Refrigeration slows the growth of most pathogens, such as E. coli, norovirus or salmonella, but not listeria,” Chapman says.
Deli meat is a top source of listeria. The meat may not contain enough of the bacteria to make you sick when you buy it, but the bacteria multiply with time, so you should eat it within a few days. Older adults, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems are more susceptible than others to listeria infection, and the USDA recommends that they avoid eating deli meats and hot dogs unless those foods first reach a temperature of 165 degrees. Ready-to-eat refrigerated foods, smoked seafood, pâtés, meat spreads and blue-veined and soft cheeses such as brie, feta and queso fresco are also risky.
Use your eyes and nose. Regardless of the package date, avoid food that’s obviously spoiled. If your eyesight or sense of smell can’t be trusted, have a friend or family member check out the food for you, or simply discard it when you’re in doubt. Never taste a food that you suspect has gone bad.
For further guidance, go to www.ConsumerReports.org/Health, where more detailed information, including CR’s ratings of prescription drugs, treatments, hospitals and healthy-living products, is available to subscribers.