Posted by Divya Sathyanarayanan

Ever wondered if that food in the refrigerator or pantry is safe to eat beyond the sell by date? We all face this dilemma in our daily life to determine whether the food is safe to eat beyond its expiration date. Dr. Thomas Horowitz, Family Medicine Specialist at CHA HPMC, explains how to determine if a food is safe to consume beyond the date on the packaging.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has studied food safety and the reality is that most nonperishable items are safe after the sell by date. The sell by date is often intended to serve as a guideline or estimate regarding the peak quality of the food product. Most food products can be consumed beyond the expiration date on the package, with the exception of meat, dairy, eggs, and infant or baby food. There are a few key factors to determine the safety and quality of food:


  • Canned foods require the most scrutiny—a perfectly intact canned food will last years and canned bread will last the longest. Acidic or sugary foods have the shortest shelf life. Bulging and dented cans are at risk as most cans have a lining to separate the food from the metal. Dents can break the lining. Rust is another enemy of durability.
  • Packaged goods can get stale due to oxidation and this can be delayed using vacuum packing. It is a good idea to use vacuum bags to package frozen food products as well.
  • Damaged or improperly stored foods are unsafe even before the expiration date.

Temperature: Next, we look at the temperature of storage. Cooler temperature helps preserve food whereas heat and warm weather may spoil the food faster. Military Meal, Ready-to-Eat (MRE) packs can last over 10 years if stored in a cool place, but heat can shorten that time period by more than half. Many foods are available in Mylar packs which are used for military MREs. They are air-tight and store well. Commercial food in this packaging requires cool dry storage for the longest shelf life and most are packaged in a cardboard box that protects the bag inside. It is best to keep the bag in the box as flexing the bag can weaken it.

Time: With time, the texture and flavor of the food drops, but that does not make the food unsafe. Most canned or jarred foods are good between 1-2 years after the date noted.

Warning Signs: Often, foods past their expiration date may show some type of warning sign and will usually look different in texture and smell unpleasant. When you see these warning signs, it is safe to assume that the food is unsafe to eat.

While these are general tips to help you determine the safety of food, you can also refer to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s FoodKeeper App to learn more about safe handling, preparation, and storage of foods.
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