Most savvy consumers would jump at the chance to save 20% on their groceries, or get 20% cash back on their weekly food purchases. But what if we told you that at least 20% of the food that you throw out on a weekly basis is still perfectly good?
According to the FDA, Americans waste around 133 billion pounds of food every year — roughly 30-40% of the country’s entire food supply. A significant factor in that food waste is consumers throwing out wholesome food due to confusion stemming from date labels like “use by,” “sell by,” and “best by.”
The FDA believes that this confusion represents 20% of the average household’s food waste, meaning that you can prevent food waste and make your groceries go further every week by learning a little bit about food labeling. Is it okay to eat expired, canned food? Let’s find out!
Are food product date labels required by law?
Outside of infant formula and some baby foods, federal regulations do not require producers to apply date labels to any food products.
What does a food product’s date label refer to?
Food product date labels represent a manufacturer’s recommendation of when a product can be expected to provide its peak quality and flavor — not necessarily when the product is safe to eat.
According to the USDA, “Manufacturers provide dating to help consumers and retailers decide when food is of best quality. Except for infant formula, dates are not an indicator of the product’s safety and are not required by federal law.”
Can you eat “expired” canned food?
Good news: Shelf-stable canned goods are safe more or less indefinitely, lasting up to five years or more according to the USDA. It’s typically safe to eat food that’s past its expiration date, with a few exceptions.
If the can in question contains a higher-acid food such as tomatoes, fruits, pickles, sauerkraut, or a food in a vinegar-based sauce, the USDA recommends discarding these items after 18 months from date of purchase. The natural chemicals in these foods react with the cans themselves, and over several years this can cause texture and taste changes, eventually resulting in food that is less nourishing.
What are some signs that canned food (expired or otherwise) might not be safe?
Cans with deep dents (deeper than 1/2 inch) may no longer be fully sealed, and therefore should be deemed unsafe. Cans with swelling should also be discarded, as should cans that display significant amounts of rust.
Discard any canned food that gives off a foul odor or contains unexpectedly milky liquids, and don’t consume any food from a can that sprays liquid when you open it.
Can temperature affect the safety of canned food?
Yes, prolonged exposure to temperatures over 100ºF can significantly increase the risk of spoilage of canned foods, causing them to expire quicker. Canned foods stored directly next to open heat sources such as stoves, furnaces, or heaters should be treated with caution.
Where can I research whether food in my pantry is safe to eat?
The FoodKeeper app is an excellent resource that makes it easy to browse and search for safe storage timelines for a huge variety of foods. Created jointly by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, Cornell University, and the Food Marketing Institute, the FoodKeeper app is rigorously factual, and trusted by Food Bank of the Rockies to help determine whether donated foods will be acceptable for nourishing our neighbors experiencing hunger.