Safe at home: Those pesky ‘best by’ dates

"Best by" dates aren't absolutes. Most canned foods are perfectly fine for up to five years. (Photo by Laura Groch)

“Best by” dates aren’t absolutes. Most canned foods are perfectly fine for up to five years. (Photo by Laura Groch)


For the past three months, I’ve been feeding myself poison.

That is, if you count “Use by,” “Best by” and “Sell by” dates as absolutes when it comes to wholesome food.

Obviously, I don’t.

We’ve recently seen stories about how wasteful Americans are with their food, and how those above-mentioned “guidelines” are causing us to toss tons of perfectly good eats.

The July 2017 edition of Consumer Reports weighs in: “Americans throw away about a quarter of the food and beverages they buy, at a cost of up to $2,275 annually for the average family of four, says the Natural Resources Defense Council.”

My aunt,  however, routinely hands me her canned or boxed goods when the calendar passes whatever date is on them. They are still perfectly fine, I try to tell her, but she won’t be moved. “I don’t want to take a chance,” she says.

In reality, according to many sources, including WebMD, those “best by” dates refer “strictly to quality, not safety.” Many foods are perfectly safe to eat a few weeks or even months past those dates. (The real culprits are bacteria introduced by unsanitary food handling, not from spoilage.)

So I add her pasta, crackers, cereal and canned food to my pantry, and yes (gasp), eat them — sometimes months later. And I’m still standing. No stomach ailments, either.

I started keeping track. Here’s a small sample of “outdated” foods we’ve eaten since March 2017:

  • canned mushrooms (best by 2015), canned tomatoes (best by March 2016), tomato paste (best by August 2016);
  • bacon ranch salad dressing (best by December 2016), Dijon mustard (best by February 2017), dried onion-mushroom soup (best by April 2015);
  • packaged turkey breast (use by February 2017), “lite” cream cheese (best by December 2016), packaged ham slices (use by April 2017) and canned pumpkin (best by February 2016).
  • Bagged spinach, “enjoy by May 14” which I just finished off three weeks past the date. Yes, I lost a few leaves, but 98 percent of the package was perfectly fresh and green and edible.

Canned goods are fine as long as the can is still intact and doesn’t show any signs of swelling (which does indicate spoilage). If the can spurts or splurts when you open it, toss it out. That hasn’t happened yet to me, and I read that cans stored in a cool, dry place are fine for up to five years.

As for boxed stuff, if there are no bugs in it and the fats haven’t turned rancid, it’s fine to eat. Come on, who ever got sick from old cookies?

In all cases, use your head as well as your nose. Give it a sniff and if it smells off, then toss it. (Milk comes to mind here.) Obviously, if you see mold, get rid of the food. But yogurt is still good for several weeks past its date.

I don’t want to sound too cavalier about food safety — nor do I want people to be afraid to eat at my house! So I will end with this story:

Auntie gave me a package a few months ago of brand-name lunch meat that she’d forgotten in the back of the fridge. It looked perfectly fine and pink to me — hadn’t been opened, just forgotten.

The date was 2014. Three years old.

I was tempted. It looked fine. But once I brought it home, even I hesitated. Three years is a pretty long storage period. (And what does it say about preservatives that the meat was still so blushing pink? But that’s another subject.)

I consulted with my brain trust, the sage women in my reading tutoring group. They advised against eating the meat.

I emailed the company with the details, and asked their advice. Of course, they weren’t going to say their product was unsafe, nor were they going to recommend consuming it:

“It is hard to say how long a product can be kept after this date has passed. Perishability of individual products can vary and a lot depends on how a product has been handled during distribution, in stores and at home. So, in order to assure the best quality and flavor I’d really recommend you use our products before this date has passed.”

Still, it looked so good! But was I willing to risk an upset stomach?

Yeah, all right. I gave in. I tossed the package.

I still believe in the safety of foods that have passed their sell-by date. But to quote W.C. Fields, “No point in being a damn fool about it.”

(c) copyright 2017 Laura Groch


2 thoughts on “Safe at home: Those pesky ‘best by’ dates

  1. I’m right there with you, Laura!
    The food wasted in this country boggles the mind. So eat the ugly veggies and fruit! And follow your instinct with canned goods (and toss those with bulging lids and toss pinckish luncheon meats!).


  2. Count me in with the group of people who are concerned about the amount of wasted food in this country. Ii try to do my tiny part but sometimes my planning goes awry. I have to beg my hubby NOT to bring home anything that isn’t on the list, but he occasionally transgresses.
    i ate some yogurt the other day that was fully two months past eat-by date and it was fine. And it had been opened!
    Great blog 🙂


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