AARP Eye Center
No one wants to waste food. Yet 90 percent of us are guilty of occasionally throwing out still-fresh food, which makes up the majority of what's dumped in our landfills.
Worse, once there, items from our fridge rot and release methane, a harmful greenhouse gas. At least part of the reason we toss out too much, experts say, is some understandable confusion over when food goes bad and what “best by” or “use by” labels printed on packages actually mean.
AARP Membership — $12 for your first year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal
Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.
With the exception of infant formula, such labels are not federally regulated. "Manufacturers set shelf-life dates to assure quality, but those dates are only best estimates and depend on the food,” says Donald W. Schaffner, an extension specialist in food science and distinguished professor at Rutgers University. “A given food consumed after its ‘best before’ date may taste just fine.”
To help clarify things, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a statement in May supporting the food industry's efforts to standardize the use of the term “Best If Used By” on packaged food. But if we can't depend on the dates stamped on our food to tell us when it's time to throw it out, how do we decide what to pitch and what to keep?
Use your senses to detect food spoilage
"The best way to detect whether food is still good is by relying on your senses,” says Yvette Cabrera, project manager of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Food Matters initiative, which partners with cities to reduce food waste. “Smell it, taste it. Use what your body gave you in order to figure out if something's spoiled or not.” If you're unsure, don't risk it. “We do want people to not waste food, but our general guideline is: When in doubt throw it out,” says FDA spokesperson Paul Cassell.
Understand that spoiled doesn't mean contaminated
"There is often a misconception that spoiled food will make you sick,” Schaffner says. “Generally, the bacteria that spoil food are not the same bacteria that make us sick. A food can be spoiled but also be pathogen-free. A food may also contain pathogens but not be overtly spoiled.” Milk is a great example. When it's spoiled, it smells and tastes really bad, but because it's pasteurized, drinking it won't make you ill (though it may make you gag). As a matter of fact, sour milk can be great in recipes such as sour-milk corn bread or sour-milk pancakes.
Store food correctly to avoid illness
Optimal storage conditions are more important than sell-by dates when it comes to food safety. Even if the date expires during home storage, the U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines say that a product should be “safe, wholesome and of good quality if handled properly and kept at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below."
Bacteria multiplies rapidly between 40 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, something that can happen anytime, regardless of the date on the package. If refrigerated at the proper temperature, safe storage ranges for some common items include:
- Ground meats, fresh poultry: 1 to 2 days
- Fresh beef, veal, lamb and pork (roasts, chops and steaks): 3 to 5 days
- Lunch meat, opened package/deli sliced: 3 to 5 days; unopened package: 2 weeks
- Leftovers: 3 to 4 days
- Cut fruit: 4 days
- Hard-boiled eggs: 1 week
- Chopped vegetables stored in an air-tight container: 1 week
- Pasteurized milk: 1 week beyond sell-by date
- Raw eggs in shell: 3 to 5 weeks
- Soft cheese, opened: 2 weeks. If mold develops, toss it.
- Hard cheese, opened: 3 to 4 weeks. If it develops a blue-green mold on the exterior, cut away the mold plus an additional half inch below it.
A note about produce: Visibly aging produce can emit gases that speed the ripening of other produce. Use immediately or compost it.
For expert tips to help feel your best, get AARP’s monthly Health newsletter.