'Expired' food is often safe to eat

By Anthony GiorgianniConsumer Reports

If you have a typical family of four, you could be needlessly throwing out hundreds of dollars worth of food every year because of confusing expiration dates, according to "The Dating Game," a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic. Food sell-by, use-by, or best-before dates rarely have anything to do with food safety, according to the report.

"The current system of expiration dates misleads consumers to believe they must discard food in order to protect their own safety," the report says. "In fact, the dates are only suggestions by the manufacturer for when the food is at its peak quality, not when it is unsafe to eat."

Continue Reading Below

It estimates that confusion over food dating causes nine out of 10 Americans to throw away food needlessly. It reviews the hodgepodge of state regulations covering food dating. It also discusses the absence of binding federal dating standards and recommends a series of changes to date labels.

Keep food at its freshest by learning how to organize your refrigerator and using a refrigerator thermometer. If you need to replace your refrigerator, check our refrigerator buying guide and Ratings.

What to do. Don't assume food is unsafe to eat simply because it has reached or passed the date displayed on the package, although you may not want to purchase it beyond that date. The one exception is baby formula, which should never be consumed beyond its “use by” date.

The United States Department of Agriculture offers a chart that shows how long to store meat and eggs. Find information on more foods by visiting the website StillTasty. But always toss anything that doesn’t smell right or hasn’t been properly stored, no matter what the date says. If you've had a power failure, visit Foodsafety.gov for information on how long refrigerated food will remain safe to eat.

—Anthony Giorgianni

Copyright © 2005-2013 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission. Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this site.