How serious is salmonella, really?
February 14, 2011 6:42 PM   Subscribe

How flexible are y'all with expiration dates on food?

I come from a family where if food is past it's expiration date you look at it, and if it looks fine you smell it, and if it smells fine you taste it, and if it tastes fine you eat it.

So logically I've carried this practice into (semi)adulthood, where I now live with four other people scrutinizing my food habits. Several of my housemates will throw things out the moment they reach the 'sell by' date and it's sort of been a running joke that I'm the one who'll drink juice a month past it's expiration date if it doesn't taste bad or scrape mold off the top of jelly and eat the rest (I only did it because it was really really delicious homemade jelly). Recently, my bio-chem studying housemate took it up a notch by telling me that I'd only do something like that because I don't understand the molecular-whatever-whatever of mold on food/ all the sightless, odorless bacteria lurking in my expired food.

He meant it as a joke (sort of) but it got me wondering. Am I really off base with how I treat expired food? Is botulism in my future? How seriously do you guys take food expiration dates?

For the record, I don't really eat much meat and really never cook it, so that's not really part of the picture. As an added detail, throughout extensive travel in developing nations I don't really ever feel sick even when my travel companions are praying for death to end the suffering that a piece of contaminated lettuce inflicted upon them, so maybe I just have a stomach of steel.
posted by geegollygosh to Health & Fitness (32 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You've been doing this for what, 25 years? Have you died from it yet? You seem to be your own body of evidence that it's not horribly likely to kill you.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 6:47 PM on February 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

This Slate article seems to point to you being right. I'm in your camp as well - what doesn't kill you makes you stronger!
posted by hepta at 6:48 PM on February 14, 2011

I'm with you. I think fear mongering has done its part to your roommates.
posted by zombieApoc at 6:50 PM on February 14, 2011

I'm with you, unless I'm feeding it to my kid. But ESPECIALLY with sell by dates - that's different than an expiration date in my understanding.
posted by dpx.mfx at 6:52 PM on February 14, 2011

The expiration date on an unopened package of food is one thing. And the sell-by date on something like a carton of eggs is another thing. But deciding to eat food which has visibly gone bad (in the form of grown mold) is definitely unwise.

When you open something, bacteria begin to colonize it. How big a problem this is depends on how the food is being stored, what the food is, and a certain amount of random chance. Some bacteria are harmless. Others are not.

(Keep in mind, too, that America's food supply is one of the most contaminated of the industrialized nations. Our rate of food poisoning is many times higher than that of other countries.)

Personally, when in doubt, I follow Still Tasty. These guidelines exist for a reason. It's not just a plot to get you to throw out your orange juice more often.
posted by ErikaB at 6:53 PM on February 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

Delicious fruit jam has a spot of mold? I'd scoop it out and taste-test the rest. If it hasn't started fermenting, I'll put it in the fridge and remind myself to buy jam with a higher sugar content. Also, note that honey doesn't really ever spoil at all and never needs to be refrigerated.
posted by Nomyte at 6:56 PM on February 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm with you 100%.

But then, I'm a dumpster diver.

posted by Rash at 6:56 PM on February 14, 2011

If humans were really that delicate, we would be extinct by now.

With the caveat that you should always wash pre-bagged lettuce, no matter how many times the container assures you it has been washed. That shit is filthy.
posted by Sara C. at 6:59 PM on February 14, 2011

To avoid getting a mouthful of spoiled milk, make sure you know which brands do a sell-by and which do a consume-by (learned this the hard way -- Trader Joe's does a consume-by on their dairy, where as the other local brands that I buy do a sell-by. makes for nasty morning coffee if you get it wrong). That would be my only advice (I leave it to others to give you the science on moldy food and whatnot).
posted by JenMarie at 6:59 PM on February 14, 2011

(Keep in mind, too, that America's food supply is one of the most contaminated of the industrialized nations. Our rate of food poisoning is many times higher than that of other countries.)

posted by limeonaire at 7:00 PM on February 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

I won't eat anything past its expiration date.
Including canned goods.

I'm probably the opposite of you. In fact, a lot of times I won't eat/drink something if its sell by date is the day before. Especially milk and eggs.

I have what you could call a stomach of steel, as well. But that might be from not eating expired food or chicken sandwiches from the gas station.
posted by KogeLiz at 7:02 PM on February 14, 2011

Does the US have 'best before' and 'use by' dates? I'm free and easy with the former (especially with soft cheeses), strict has hell with the latter (as in, if the date is approaching, I'll throw it, especially with animal products).
posted by obiwanwasabi at 7:05 PM on February 14, 2011

Nuts, also coconut flakes, fats and oils, and obviously meat and fish are the typical things where I'm really careful. Old nuts are horrible...other than that obviously tea, coffee and other things that lose their flavor when old.
Cheese: cheapo cheese must be fresh and shouldn't be over the expiration date. But I've bought quite a few very pleasant down-priced over-the-date high-end cheeses with no negative effects. (I once even got Gruyère and Emmentaler for two Fondue sessions for nothing. I showed the packs to the shopkeeper, who went white and said "I can't sell those to you". So I asked can I have them for free...)
Vegetables I buy by eye. More often than not, the expiration date is way too optimistic for my taste. Oh the wilted salads and yellow broccoli I've seen.
posted by Namlit at 7:06 PM on February 14, 2011

As long as it's not way past the expiration date and it can pass a smell and experimental taste test I'll eat it. I guess I would be more strict with canned good but I don't eat that many of those and they don't hang around the pantry that long.
posted by ghharr at 7:06 PM on February 14, 2011

I am totally with you. Except with milk, which I have a totally irrational fear of being spoiled and will throw out at the drop of the hat.
posted by grapesaresour at 7:08 PM on February 14, 2011

The sell by date is the last day they're allowed to sell by, not the last day you're allowed to eat it.
posted by leahwrenn at 7:10 PM on February 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm definitely closer to your side, as well. I simply use common sense. I do tend to throw milk out the day after the expiration date however, but that's because I had really bad sour milk experience. Other than that, meh. I once ate a box of kraft dinner A YEAR after the expiry date. I didn't know KD even had expiry dates, and only noticed after I'd eaten it. Tasted fine to me - it's dried pasta and chemicals, after all. What's in there that's gonna go bad, anyway? Since then, I look at expiry dates as a rough suggestion made by a a company with a vested interest in me chucking the stuff to go out and buy more.

Just as annoying as 'sell by' dates are 'for best quality use by' dates. I have a package of shredded cheese (again, Kraft... hmmmm....) that says 'for best quality use by 5 days after opening'. Right.... My last bag lasted 3 months, and was fine.
posted by cgg at 7:12 PM on February 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Of course, once again, a fake processed cheese product. I need to eat better cheese.
posted by cgg at 7:12 PM on February 14, 2011

I ignore all that lawyer crap, and eat what I want, provided it passes the smell test. I'm 55, and I get sick twice a year, summer cold and winter cold. That's it.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 7:15 PM on February 14, 2011

Limonaire, some citations from a quick bit of Googling: 1 2 3

I actually just came back to point out that Still Tasty has a very relevant article on their main page right now, "Expiration Dates: Should You Pay Attention?"
posted by ErikaB at 7:16 PM on February 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

I use common sense, but I was also raise din a household where we frequently ate food that was past it's expiration. It did result in a dodgy sausage incident where I took down my whole student household, but apart from that we're good.
posted by arcticseal at 7:19 PM on February 14, 2011

As a victim of several bouts of food-poisoning, I pretty much err on the side of caution. Food can still look, smell, and taste ok, but still cause major gastric distress. I'd rather waste a little food and money in return for not spending a day or two, bed-ridden and vomiting.
posted by crunchland at 7:31 PM on February 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Depends on how susceptible you are to food poisoning. I need to be careful; the Largely Mythological Husband not so much.

Botulism, on the other hand, is serious. Don't fuck around with botulism.

I like the University of Florida Agricultural Extension's series of white papers on foodborne illnesses.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:48 PM on February 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Assuming the food has been properly stored, I can push the "best before" date a little.

For example, if ground beef or chicken is one day after the "best before" date, and if they don't smell bad, I'll cook the hell out of them and freeze what I don't eat that day. I might push it to 2-3 days after expiration for whole cuts of meat using the same criteria (seems OK, cook it to death just in case). I've cooked refrigerated eggs that were a week or so after their posted date, cracking each one into a bowl first to make sure they smelled and looked good.

OTOH, I wouldn't assume that any food that smelled and looked OK was actually OK if it hadn't been stored properly. I've seen someone get violently ill from meat sandwiches left in a cool, not cold, place overnight. (We ate the same things fresh the day before: he was ill, I wasn't.) I've seen reports here of the horrible state some people have been left in after eating fish that had been left on the counter for only a few hours.

So yeah, push the dates a little, but don't slack on proper storage.
posted by maudlin at 7:54 PM on February 14, 2011

Would your roommates drink sour milk if the carton said it was good until next week? If not, that same common sense is why it's fine to drink good milk after the stamped date.

My girlfriend has coworkers who clean the work fridge and throw out anything that's past its stamped date. Drives her up the wall when they throw out her perfectly good milk/yogurt/etc.
posted by reeddavid at 8:09 PM on February 14, 2011

In general, I believe that if it smells ok, it will digest ok.

However! Do Not Ever trifle with mayonnaise! No good can come of it.
posted by palacewalls at 8:36 PM on February 14, 2011

I'm with you 95% on this one. I generally do not follow sell by dates since those rarely correspond to actual going bad dates (and because I'm a college student who can't quite afford spending more than needed on food). Mold on bread? I'll just cut out that area then stick it in the oven to make bread crumbs or croutons. I follow the smell test a lot since I have a ridiculous sense of smell. However, one thing I will never mess around is the expiration of my meats**. Generally, I chuck them in the freezer until I need it but once I thaw out something, it gets eaten, or at least cooked, within 3-4 days. However, once cooked, I consider it safe to eat without sniffing until it's about 5 days old.

**My meat rule has been shaken since going to China for 3 months and saw street vendors just leaving raw meat outside for hours on end (even when it was still pretty warm outside) then frying them and serve as street food. I never got any sort of food borne illnesses from eating from these vendors so it might be possible to fudge around with the meats...
posted by astapasta24 at 9:00 PM on February 14, 2011

The writer of that Slate article did an interview on NPR shortly after that was published. There's an mp3 available there, as well as the entire transcript.

I was listening to it at work so I only paid half-attention. This thread has made me want to listen to it again to see what I missed...
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 9:15 PM on February 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Here is a pamphlet from UC Davis talking about when to use/throw away products with mold on them.

The only two things that I absolutely will throw away when the expiration dates come around are yogurt (Greek yogurt is usually eaten quickly enough around here that the sell-by dates never come around, and regular yogurt is cheap enough that I would rather be safe than sorry) and pretty much anything with mold growing on it- while I know that you can cut around the mold on cheese, I am pretty allergic to mold and would rather not take the chance. With that said, I am definitely cautious- my immune system isn't too weak but I have gotten a couple of spectacularly nasty cases of food poisoning, and the few dollars worth of food I would be throwing out is not worth as much to me as having to miss school and work because I can't move without puking. YMMV, obviously, if you have a stomach of steel.
posted by kro at 9:31 PM on February 14, 2011

If the can's not bulgin'--'s good fuh indulgin'!
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:37 PM on February 14, 2011

Botulism specifically almost never occurs in the US outside of home-canned products; it's so rare that doctors often don't suspect it/diagnose it promptly when it does occur. AFAIK all other common-ish food toxins will be killed by cooking or will be obvious on inspection. Learning about home canning is a good way to learn more about which foods are safer / more likely to cause illness.

I also got great training in "can I eat this" when I worked for a food bank, volunteering to sort food might be a good way to learn more. There were standardized "good x months past consume by date" rules for different types of food.

Sour milk is unlikely to make you sick. My father and I don't smell sour milk, and haven't had any problems except mom pulling faces when she opens the fridge.
posted by momus_window at 10:57 AM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

It depends on the type of food - canned vs. not canned and if it's been opened or not. Canned food gets the smell+taste test and is used if it passes. Non-canned items (dairy, vegetables, meat) is tossed within a couple days of the expiry date if not eaten. Previously opened items are tossed when cleaning out the fridge.

If something has been defrosted it gets cooked and eaten right away.

Scraping mould off of something and then eating it is not an option except cheese.
posted by deborah at 4:00 PM on February 16, 2011

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