8 things you should never use past their expiration date
We’ve all been there—it’s time to clean out the refrigerator and inevitably, there’s something you were really looking forward to eating, but it’s past the expiration date. It looks fine and it doesn’t smell funny, but is it safe to eat? There are certain foods that can be eaten safely past their expiration date but there are others that pose a tremendous risk.
In order to determine which foods you can and cannot eat past their expiration date, you first have to understand the terminology used on packaging. Expiration date shouldn’t be confused with “best before/best if used by” dates or “sell by” dates. “Sell by” and “best before” dates refer specifically to a food’s appearance and flavor; foods consumed past these dates may not look or taste as good as they would have prior to the date, but should still be safe to eat. “Use by” dates and expiration dates, however, are indicators of food safety; consuming foods past this date can have negative consequences, so you should only eat them if you're sure they're safe.
In general, foods that are processed for an extended shelf life—think canned goods, frozen foods, dried pasta, etc.—are safe if consumed past their expiration date, assuming they were handled and stored correctly. Fresher, less-processed foods like eggs, raw meat, and fresh fruits and vegetables, have a much shorter shelf life and won’t last as long past their expiration dates. The way a particular food looks or smells can be a good indicator of its safety, but it’s better to discard some foods when they pass their expiration date regardless of their appearance or odor.
Mixed greens and bagged salad mixes (regardless of how many times they are washed prior to purchase) have a tendency to carry certain bacteria associated with poor sanitation because they are handled so frequently. Mixed greens also get a dark, slimy appearance as they expire—a visual cue that they’re no longer safe to consume.
Deli meat should never be consumed past its expiration date, even if it hasn’t developed a strange odor or slimy appearance; it can carry listeria, bacteria that can grow in cold temperatures. That means listeria can thrive even if your deli meat has been properly stored in the refrigerator.
The chances of an egg being contaminated inside the shell are very low (about five thousandths of one percent), but egg shells commonly carry bacteria. If your eggs have passed their expiration date, it’s best to either toss them or use them for hard-boiled eggs.
Ground meats are generally more dangerous to consume post-expiration date when compared with whole cuts of meat; ground meats are handled more (including the grinding process) and may include meat from many different slaughterhouses –all this adds up to more opportunities for contamination.
Soft cheeses (especially those made with unpasteurized milk) can be contaminated with listeria, and it’s difficult to effectively trim away any moldy or spoiled portions. If soft cheeses like queso fresco, feta, brie or blue are past their expiration date, it’s best to throw them away.
Alfalfa sprouts can be dangerous to consume after their expiration date as well. The sprouts need a warm, moist environment to grow–the same environment bacteria needs to thrive. Since spouts are most often eaten raw, it’s difficult to eliminate any bacteria that may be present.
Consumer Reports tested 300 store-bought chicken breasts for bacteria; 97 percent of the chicken breasts were contaminated—not surprising given the conditions under which chickens are raised, and rising nationwide concerns about antibiotic-resistant bacteria. If your chicken is past its expiration date, toss it—it’s not worth the risk.