Know When to Keep, Toss Food

by Chris Bjorklund


Deciding whether it’s still safe to eat an older item from the cupboard or refrigerator can be a gamble: Waste what might be perfectly good food, or risk a bout of intestinal upset or worse? In the absence of obvious warning signs such as the smell of sour milk or a green layer of mold fuzz, it can be difficult to know when food has gone bad. 

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), a sell-by date is a guide for retailers to know when to move old stock off the shelves and replace it with new stock. You should purchase the item before the sell-by date, but you don’t necessarily have to eat it by then for it to be safe. Likewise, a use-by or best-by date simply guarantees optimal flavor or quality if eaten by that date. The expiration date is more telling, particularly with things like meat and dairy. Of course, if food is not stored properly or the packaging is damaged, it can become unsafe even before the expiration date. Visit the USDA online to learn more about food package dating and home food storage guidelines.

Because packaging codes don’t always reveal the whole story, experts say to trust your senses: If it doesn’t look, smell, or taste right, don’t take a chance—toss it.

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