Bins of dried rice and beans, towers of canned fruits and vegetables and pound after pound of flour and sugar.
An overstocked pantry may be the visible reminder of the new coronavirus, long after panic-driven purchasing has subsided. But there’s no need to panic over the timeline for consuming dry goods, even the contents of jars, cans and boxes past their package dates. Anyone in a cash crunch for groceries can be confident that “expired” foods are still safe to consume.
“The quality of the food is still really good,” says Chris Bosse, food bank supervisor for ACCESS, which distributed 5.2 million pounds of food last year within Jackson County.
Shelf-stable foods last so long, in fact, that ACCESS distributes items to the public for three years past dates indicated on packaging, says Bosse. The main criteria for pantry goods is that cans exhibit no visible rust, swelling or deep dents on the sides, he says. Dents on a can’s rim — the weakest point — also are suspect. Plastic bags and cardboard boxes should be free of holes or tears. And jar lids should be secure. “Make sure the seals are intact,” says Bosse.
Contrary to notions that food dating implies some sort of safeguard, most dates indicate peak quality and serve to inform grocers’ inventories. Excepting infant formula, dates are not indicators of food safety and aren’t even required by federal law, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “That doesn’t really apply to you, the consumer,” says Mahlea Rasmussen, education coordinator for Ashland Food Co-op.
Confusion likely stems from inconsistent use of terminology among food products and their manufacturers. Shoppers are accustomed to seeing several phrases stamped on food packages but struggle to discern the differences. And shoppers who can’t reference labels for items purchased from bulk bins may resort to a wild guess. “That is a common concern for people,” says Rasmussen.
The most common qualifiers for food dates are: “best by,” “best before,” “sell by,” “use by,” “freeze by” and small variations on each. None of them should be interpreted as expiration dates. However, any shelf-stable item produced five years ago or longer is questionable, says Bosse. “The nutritional value will start to taper off.”
While actual spoilage is unlikely in intact canned goods, perishable foods’ freshness is more closely tied to package dates and consumers’ own observations. The USDA tasks the public with evaluating food products before consumption for signs they may have spoiled. “When in doubt, throw it out,” says Bosse.
Even fresh foods, he says, have a window past their package dates in which the foods likely are safe to eat. Eggs two weeks past the carton date and week-old milk routinely are distributed by ACCESS. Many cheeses last even longer and usually can hold up to consumers’ “visual inspection,” says Bosse. Fermented dairy foods, such as yogurt and sour cream, can be fresh for weeks past their package dates, says Rasmussen.
Frozen foods 90 days past package dates meet ACCESS standards. While frozen meats degrade more quickly, frozen fruits and vegetables last for months and months, says Bosse, adding that frozen foods shouldn’t be thawed and then refrozen.
Proper storage goes a long way toward extending the shelf life of both preserved and fresh foods, say Bosse and Rasmussen. Dry goods, cans and jars should be kept in a cool, dry place.
Receptacles used to store bulk foods should be clean and dry, says Rasmussen, explaining that air-drying containers after washing is preferable because towels can introduce bacteria. Properly stored, dried beans last two to three years and dried grains about a year, she says.
Although there’s a perception that grains should be stored in the refrigerator, that’s not necessary, particularly if they’re replenished often, says Rasmussen. If whole grains start to smell soapy, their natural oils may be going rancid, affecting flavor, she says. Odor often is the best indicator of food spoilage, she adds.
Once foods are removed from their packaging, cooked or combined with other ingredients, the clock to consume them starts ticking. Follow food-service protocol for eating leftover, cooked foods within a week, says Rasmussen, who also recommends organizing the fridge to facilitate timely consumption. She keeps ready-to-eat foods on a high shelf, safe from other foods dripping onto them.
And when serving out of food packages, don’t use the same utensil for several items, which hastens spoilage and can even contaminate foods with germs, says Rasmussen. That means no double-dipping between tubs of salsa and sour cream or jars of peanut butter and jelly. And definitely no licking the spoon in between. “Make sure each container has its own spoon or utensils.”