Q: I read a letter to the editor in the Lawrence Journal-World a couple of weeks ago that shared a concern about donations to food pantries that have expired dates on them. Are canned and packaged foods safe to eat after their expiration date?
A: First, let me say that I concur with the statement “Why in the world would another family want to eat what you really wanted to throw away in the trash?” Only donate foods which you would want to use yourself.
Now, let’s address your question. I often have people calling to ask whether a specific food is still safe for their family to consume. One way to judge is by checking the food product dating. Understanding the types of dates can help you make a decision. The following terms may appear on products you buy:
• “Sell-by” date — tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.
• “Best if used by (or before)” date — is recommended for best flavor or quality. IT IS NOT A PURCHASE OR SAFETY DATE.
• “Use-by” date — is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at PEAK QUALITY (i.e., best texture, appearance, aroma and flavor) under normal storage conditions. This date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.
• “Closed or coded” dates — are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer.
Commercially processed foods such as canned products and other packaged goods can be suitable for eating after the sell-by or best-by date if they have been handled and stored properly — though their quality may have diminished.
In general, low-acid canned goods like canned meats, poultry, fish, stews, soups (except tomato) and most vegetables can be stored from 2 to 5 years. High-acid canned goods like canned fruits, tomato products, tomato soup, juices, sauerkraut and pickled products can be stored from 12 months to 18 months.
• Do not buy or use canned goods that are dented on the rim or seam, or have a sharp indent on the sides or those that have rust. Never use a product that is leaking or bulging or spurts out when opened. This may be a sign of micro-organisms growing in the food.
• Do not purchase or use jars with visible cracks. Make sure you hear the vacuum “pop” when opening jarred goods. If the seal has been broken, discard where people or animals cannot consume.
• Discard food packages that are broken, damaged, leaking, stained or have the presence of mold or insects.
• Shelf-stable packaged goods that contain foods with natural or added oils can become rancid, especially if stored in above-average temperatures for a period of time. Check crackers, whole grain products, nuts, seeds and snack foods that contain fat periodically by smelling the contents. If rancid, they will have an off-odor and usually a bitter taste. Discard these products.
If the products have not been stored or handled properly, then they may not be suitable for consumption and should be discarded. Properly store and handle commercially packaged products by following these practices:
• Store in a dry, cool place (50 to 70 degrees), like kitchen cabinets, and away from warm places, such as above a stove, range or furnace.
• Do not store in a garage or crawl space due to extreme hot and cold temperatures that can speed deterioration and affect taste and appearance.
• Do not store foods under a sink where packaged foods can absorb moisture from the humidity. Canned goods will rust and cause products to leak and spoil. Boxed/dry foods can absorb moisture, resulting in caked and stale products.
• Practice “first in, first out.” Arrange the cans and packaged products so you use the oldest ones first.
• Use baby formula and baby foods by the “use-by” date to ensure the product still meets the nutritional and quality standards stated on the label. Discard after this date.
• Read the label for additional storage and handling instructions. Look for the words “keep refrigerated” or “refrigerate after opening” to know whether the product should be refrigerated. Also, pay attention to where the food product was stored in the grocery store. If it was stored in a refrigerated or freezer space, then store it in a refrigerator or freezer at home. If it was stored on a shelf (without refrigeration/freezer storage), then store it in a dry, cool place.
— Susan Krumm is an Extension agent in family and consumer sciences with K-State Research and Extension-Douglas County, 2110 Harper St. She can be reached at 843-7058.