Can I eat it? Generally speaking . . .
October 7, 2015 5:40 PM   Subscribe

Food safety: when is it safe to rely on taste/smell, and when do I need to follow specific rules?

I am familiar with to find out the average shelf life of various foods, but this question is getting at something different. When can I safely rely on smell and taste to determine if something is safe to eat, and when do I need to follow specific food safety rules?

For example, I can smell when milk is going off. I'm not worried that I'm going to accidentally drink rotting milk and not notice. I am also not worried about eating too-old crackers from the cabinet - they're going to taste stale way before they're going to hurt me. (Tell me if I'm wrong about either of those!)

I also know that some bacteria that cause illness do not have any taste or smell. I wouldn't eat a rare hamburger made from ground beef that was sitting outside for hours, and I wouldn't drink unpasturized juice (though I realize some people are willing to risk the latter).

I'm not clear on when I can reasonably rely on my sense of taste and smell to determine if a food item is still safe. If an apple that may have been in the fridge for several months seems fine, it is fine? If chicken that was thoroughly cooked has been in the fridge for 10 days, but smells normal, is it okay to eat? (I would assume the apple is fine but the chicken should be tossed, but I'm not confident that I'm correct). How do I determine when I should toss something purely because of age / left unrefrigerated too long / etc even when it looks and smells normal?

Note: For the purposes of this question, I'm not at all interested in whether foods are optimally delicious, just whether they are likely to make me sick.
posted by insectosaurus to Food & Drink (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
For hard cheese you can cut off mold and eat the rest. For soft cheese, if you find mold on there that wasn't there when you got it, toss it.
posted by town of cats at 6:32 PM on October 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've probably played chicken with leftover chicken too many times, and am living on borrowed time, but you can for example (speaking of things that aren't optimally delicious) get canned chicken that has been stored at room temperature for years and it won't kill you. So as HuronBob says there are lots of variables. (A prominent one being, has this been raised to pasteurization temperatures and sealed since then?)
posted by XMLicious at 6:44 PM on October 7, 2015

You really can't rely on smell or taste. There are plenty of food poisoning possibilities that leave no discernible flavor or scent.

I have a cast iron constitution and sometimes I risk stuff that's borderline if I'm too lazy to go to the store. But it's a risk and I would never serve it anyone else.
posted by 26.2 at 8:06 PM on October 7, 2015

For eggs, stick an egg in a glass of cold water. If it floats, toss it out. Otherwise it's good to eat.
posted by sevenofspades at 8:14 PM on October 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you can't remember buying it or cooking it, throw it out.

Processed foods have chemicals in them that make them seem fresh when they aren't. Use the expiration date, not your nose.

Stock up on quick meals that can live in your freezer for months at a time. It is much better to eat a lean cuisine than old chicken.

Not everyone has the same constitution so, what you can eat could kill the person next to you. Also, not all foods have the same origin. The old chicken from last week might have been healthier than the new old chicken this week. There just isn't any way to know so err on the side of caution.
posted by myselfasme at 8:44 PM on October 7, 2015

Unless I'm mistaken, the only time fruit or vegetables make people sick is if they're handled by someone with E. coli or the like on their unwashed hands. Aside from that, old fruit won't taste great, but it won't kill you. I wouldn't eat fruit with mouldy bits or smelling of booze. I chuck out old salad greens if I look at it and think "Do I want to waste good olive oil on this?"

You need to be much more careful about fresh meat and fish, but it's not so difficult. Don't buy more than you need to eat for the next 2-3 days, and eat any cooked leftovers within 24 hours.
posted by zadcat at 9:16 PM on October 7, 2015

I must disagree with myselfasme on one point there in that I generally find expiration dates to be completely meaningless. I've opened and eaten canned goods more than a decade past their expiration dates with only minor degradation of taste and texture (first checking for any swelling of the can indicative of anaerobic bacteria, of course, but in the twenty-first century I've only encountered two or three undented cans with this issue so far) as well as sealed, pasteurized dairy goods that have been kept at a low, level temperature more than two months past their expiration date.

On the other hand, during the first few years that one particular gas station / convenience store near my house was open their gallons of milk would consistently spoil before the expiration date. You'd often stop to get milk, pick one up marked with an expiration date several days in the future, and when you got home and opened it it'd already have gone bad before you even had a sip. I assume that some mistake was being made somewhere in their supply chain.

Similarly, transparent glass or plastic bottles of oil that are on the top shelf where they're exposed to light all day, every day, are often rancid before their expiration date as soon as you open them. For almost anything that comes in a transparent container I try to pick one from the back of a lower shelf in the hope that it's been in the dark consistently.
posted by XMLicious at 9:21 PM on October 7, 2015

Our house is fairly relaxed about vegetables & dairy (unopened yogurt is often good at least a month longer than the carton says and we eat eggs as long as they don't float), but we try to be more careful with meat products & rice.
posted by belladonna at 6:34 AM on October 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

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