How important is the sell-by date on chicken?
July 11, 2009 10:43 AM   Subscribe

Is the chicken sell-by date a safety paradox?

I bought $30 of organic chicken parts on Tuesday--4 1/2 days ago--and have stored it in my fridge since then. Everything I've read on the web says you need to cook or freeze raw chicken within 2 days of purchase. But the chicken sell-by date is July 14--3 days from now. How is this possible? I am refrigerating it just as the store would, so why would it by safe to eat if I bought it from the store tomorrow, but not from my fridge? The store fridge isn't THAT much colder than mine (I keep mine cold), and certainly mine is cold enough to retard bacterial growth.

Are the online guidelines just being super-conservative? Maybe the suggestion really means that you should use or freeze the chicken within 2 days after the sell-by date?
posted by underwater to Food & Drink (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Not that it really answers your question, but per the FDA, it really is 1-2 days after purchase.

Perdue says two days as well, although they make it clear that the sell-by date equals the use-by date: "Do not purchase or prepare our products past their sell-by date."
posted by smackfu at 10:56 AM on July 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Did you transport it home in a refrigerated truck?
posted by redfoxtail at 11:01 AM on July 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

Are the online guidelines just being super-conservative?

Yes. When cooked correctly all the bacteria will be killed anyway.
posted by torquemaniac at 11:11 AM on July 11, 2009

Lifehacker just covered this (link goes to info on various kinds of expiration labels)!
posted by oddman at 11:17 AM on July 11, 2009

I find chicken to be one of those where you can tell by touching and smelling it. Feel slimy or have a smell? Trash it, otherwise go nuts.
posted by furtive at 11:39 AM on July 11, 2009

Chicken from the grocery store often spoils several days before the sell-by date, at least in my experience, to the point at which it smells too horrible for me to care whether it would be safe after cooking. Freezing is a good idea if you want to keep it longer than two or three days.
posted by Ery at 11:47 AM on July 11, 2009

Best answer: One thing to consider is the packaging. When you buy meat in a sealed package, the free space in that package is often taken up by something other than air. It's there to create an environment that bacteria don't like to grow in, making the food last longer without spoiling. I can't remember what it is offhand, although I vaguely remember something about sulphide compounds in argon.

So is your chicken in a sealed package, from a big supplier? You could expect that to last longer than fresh chicken from, say, a butcher or a farm shop. Complex warning messages tend to me misunderstood or forgotten more easily, so I'd expect the FDA to err on the side of caution here.

redfoxtail's point about refrigeration is a good one too. The doubling time of salmonella (the time taken for the number of bacteria in a population to double) is about 20 minutes in ideal conditions but far, far longer at four degrees; an hour or two at room temperature is probably worth a day's growth at 4 degrees.
posted by metaBugs at 11:51 AM on July 11, 2009

Some types of contamination leave byproducts that can make you sick even if the food is fully cooked. That said, I'd eat the chicken. It helps to keep chicken in the coldest part of the fridge, usually the back of the lowest shelf.
posted by theora55 at 12:00 PM on July 11, 2009

This has been mentioned, but consider the fact that your chicken has spent some time unrefrigerated--in the cart while in the store, in the car on the way home, carried from the car to your kitchen, sitting in the bag waiting to be put in the fridge when you got home, etc.

I'm sure the FDA is trying to be safe because some people are dumb and will let things go longer, eating them anyway. Minimizing salmonella poisoning is worth being a little extra cautious.
posted by ishotjr at 12:13 PM on July 11, 2009

Chicken kept whole will last longer than parted out chicken. First, smell the chicken and if it smells off it IS off and should be tossed; if it passes the smell test, the second thing to do is to wash the chicken parts thoroughly using tap (chlorinated water) or salted water and dry thoroughly. You can brine chicken parts in a salt/sugar/flavor component solution or do a dry brine of 3/4 tsp. sea salt per pound which will allow your chicken to be kept until cooking for a day or two which, should be REAL soon. Never keep meat around for too long.

The further removed chicken is from its original structural integrity the quicker the decay process. The whole chicken is best, time wise, while boneless, skinless pieces have short spans.
posted by jadepearl at 1:12 PM on July 11, 2009

Best answer: Yes. When cooked correctly all the bacteria will be killed anyway.

That is dangerously wrong, and I am sick to death of people spouting it. Yes, part of the problem is bacteria. The rest of the problem is toxins they leave behind. If that were in fact true, meat would always be cookable as long as you do it correctly. It's not, you're wrong, stop pushing about dangerously false information. Argh!
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 1:15 PM on July 11, 2009 [13 favorites]

After thinking more, I've flagged that 'answer' and hope it will be deleted, as it is actively dangerous misinformation.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 2:04 PM on July 11, 2009

Unless you're feeding weak folk (little babies, old people, or sick people), don't get all "OMG bacteria and toxins!" and call the HAZMAT squad over something that hasn't even reached its best-by date and that you haven't left sitting out for a long time.

If you're feeding healthy people and if the chicken is relatively fresh and looks, feels, and smells OK, just be sure to cook it well. It is very unlikely that it will have enough heat-stable bacteria and toxins to bother you.
posted by pracowity at 2:07 PM on July 11, 2009

I previously asked a similar question so you might find some of those responses useful. Beagle's response worked for me but in the end, the whole thing is still confusing with the FDA and the package each saying different things.
posted by gfrobe at 3:15 PM on July 11, 2009

The basic thing you need to remember is the Danger Zone, the temperature at which bacteria start multiplying quickly. This is between 4 and and 60 degrees Celsius. Any food prone to spoilage needs to spend as little time in this zone as possible, with a hard ceiling of 4 hours cumulative.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 3:21 PM on July 11, 2009

The reason for the conservative estimates is that the refrigerators at the store are (hopefully) regulated to store the product at the correct temperature. Your home refrigerator is not. Do you have a thermometer in there? The farther away from freezing your fridge's temperature is, the quicker things will spoil.

(The temperature danger zone is 40 - 140 in the F scale.)
posted by gjc at 5:11 PM on July 11, 2009

My husband and I regularly buy chicken (and all other meat) on sale on the sell-by date, and then eat or freeze that within 1-2 days of purchase. We have never gotten sick.
posted by jb at 6:17 PM on July 11, 2009

Basically - the 1-2 days means "1-2 days if you bought it on the sell-by date like poor students do." It's a final, you really-should eat/freeze this date. But if you are buying well before the sell-by, you'll be fine. Home fridges aren't that awful - and store fridges aren't that good. Trust me, I live in the ghetto and there is no way that the local grocery store keeps their meat that well refridgerated.

My mother always kept chicken pieces for about a week before cooking.
posted by jb at 6:21 PM on July 11, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses. I think the primary explanation is the unrefrigerated journey from the store to my home. However, I actually bring an insulated cooler bag into the store with me, and the chicken was kept in there with several frozen items, and the chicken is still in the original packaging, so I think I'm safe to freeze it now.
posted by underwater at 8:07 PM on July 11, 2009

When you buy meat in a sealed package, the free space in that package is often taken up by something other than air. It's there to create an environment that bacteria don't like to grow in...

Not to raise undue alarm, but that's carbon monoxide, and it's there to keep the meat looking fresh, so that shoppers are more likely to buy old meat that would otherwise be a bit grayish-brown.

Some links.
posted by rokusan at 9:21 PM on July 11, 2009

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