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Before You Toss Food, Wait. Check It Out!

Posted by Marianne Gravely, Technical Information Specialist, Food Safety and Inspection Service in Health and Safety
Feb 21, 2017

It’s happened to all of us: you’re looking for something in the freezer or pantry, and discover food that has been forgotten. Your first impulse is to throw it out, but wait!  Is it still good? Chances are it is!

Food poisoning bacteria does not grow in the freezer, so no matter how long a food is frozen, it is safe to eat. Foods that have been in the freezer for months (recommended freezer times chart) may be dry, or may not taste as good, but they will be safe to eat. So if you find a package of ground beef that has been in the freezer more than a few months, don’t throw it out. Use it to make chili or tacos. The seasonings and additional ingredients can make up for loss of flavor.

What about the foods in your pantry? Most shelf-stable foods are safe indefinitely. In fact, canned goods will last for years, as long as the can itself is in good condition (no rust, dents, or swelling). Packaged foods (cereal, pasta, cookies) will be safe past the ‘best by’ date, although they may eventually become stale or develop an off flavor. You’ll know when you open the package if the food has lost quality. Many dates on foods refer to quality, not safety. See FSIS’ Shelf-Stable Food Safety fact sheet for more information.

USDA is doing its part to help consumers keep food from going to waste. The Food Safety and Inspection Service is collaborating with the Food Marketing Institute and Cornell University to update the online Foodkeeper storage guide, which contains storage information on a wide variety of foods.  We are also developing a mobile application for the Foodkeeper to provide consumers with another user-friendly option to access good searchable information on food storage, proper storage temperatures, food product dating, and expiration dates.  Before you throw out food from your pantry or freezer, check it out. It may be just fine!

This is just one example of how Federal employees are participating in the U.S. Food Waste Challenge, sponsored by USDA in collaboration with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Challenge invites producer groups, processors, manufacturers, retailers, communities, and other government agencies to join us in our efforts to help reduce, recover, or recycle food waste in the United States.

Category/Topic: Health and Safety

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Don Schaffner
Jul 14, 2013

"Bacteria" are plural. So bacteria DO not grow. Not DOES not grow.

Jan 20, 2016

Useful article. I find that old freezer food tastes gross, so I toss it if it's ancient. Life is too short for ne to consume ickiness if I don't have to.

Mar 01, 2016

I think it might be o.k. if you eat this expired food in your home, but what about public organizations, like churches. What is the requirement for them to keep or toss expired food so a large number of people don't get sick?

Karen Roland
Jul 01, 2017

Thank you for putting this in writing so I can share this with my daughter. She constantly tries to throw pantry items out and I am forever trying to stop her.

I am physically disabled and I do my best to prepare food that I purchase and plan to eat right away. Unfortunately my plans fall through quite often and I end up keeping it far longer than I would like.

I am on a very limited budget and cannot afford to be tossing food out. I also think it is a crime to waste so much food.

Once again thank you very much.

Nichole Gabriel
Nov 23, 2017

Very informative! I look forward to using the app! This will definitely help our household cut down on food waste! Thank you!

margaret Demeo
Sep 25, 2018

white American cheese, block of it sealed, but 3 weeks past expiration date. Is it still good?

Ben Weaver
Sep 26, 2018

@Margaret Demeo - thank you for your comment. When did you purchase this product? Is it opened? We recommend to use an unopened block of American cheese within 6 months of purchase. If it’s opened use within 4 weeks. Anything after that, it may begin to spoil. If it has an off odor or visible signs of spoilage, do not use. I hope this helps!

S. Still
Oct 14, 2018

How long after expired date on bottled water is it safe to drink?

Ben Weaver
Oct 15, 2018

@S. Still - Thank you for your comment. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers bottled water to have an unlimited shelf life if it is produced properly and is unopened. Bottled water companies may choose to add a date to the bottle due to concerns about taste and odor, not safety. Bottled water should be stored in a cool location away from direct sunlight. For more information, you may contact FDA at 1-888-SAFEFOOD.

Nov 22, 2018

Hi, my sister n law came to visit . I have a pantry stocked full of items that are perfectly safe to eat..,Within this short time of her stay she threw out boxes of my food, just because she was concerned from the expiration date.. I am sending this information to her to show her that I had read the information on storing food. She’ll see that it’s not necessary to throw all food away. Thank you for posting this!

Jan 13, 2019

I have wheat, corn, and beans from 1992 in sealed 50 pound buckets. Should I get rid of it? All of the buckets have been stored at under 75 degrees. Thank you!

Ben Weaver
Jan 30, 2019

@Bonnie - thank you for your question. Although they probably won’t make you sick if you eat them, for quality reasons it may be best to just discard these items. Items such as these only have a shelf life of about 2 years before their quality begins to deteriorate and becomes unpleasant to eat. We hope this helps!

Feb 08, 2019

I have cans of pulled pork that say best used by 10/16/2017. The cans look good, but the date gives me pause. How do I know if it's safe?

Ben Weaver
Feb 12, 2019

@Dona - A "Best By/Before" date indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a safety date. Due to tightly controlled procedures of commercial canning, cans that are in good condition are safe indefinitely, even if the date passes during home storage. Never use cans that are bulging, rusted, leaking, or deeply dented. More info here:

Larry Stute
Feb 08, 2019

My spouse will keep some canned goods past their expiration but will throw canned tuna and all the expired cake mix's and mac & cheese boxes because the box mix's have dried egg in them and that goes bad. Do you agree?

Ben Weaver
Feb 12, 2019

@Larry Stute - these products are non-perishable. They have been treated by heat and/or dried to destroy foodborne microorganisms that can cause illness or spoil food. A "Best By/Before" date indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a safety date. After the date expires, it may lose flavor or quality, but it would still be safe and you should not have to throw them out. More info here:

Marciana Morales
Mar 16, 2019

Hello, I'm trying to locate a expiration or best by date on a bag of walnuts..usda food 16 oz bag
LOT# 0227199
9058 B

Ben Weaver
Mar 19, 2019

@Marciana Morales - thank you for your comment. Dating is not federally regulated or required. For quality, we recommend to use this product within 3-4 weeks of purchase. After that, the quality may begin to decrease. However, if it looks OK and smells OK, it would still be safe to eat. We hope this helps.

Janet Sayre Hoeft
Mar 16, 2019

Is there a printout we could post at our local food pantry?

Ben Weaver
Mar 19, 2019

@Janet Sayre Hoeft - thank you for your comment. Unfortunately we do not have printer-friendly versions of the documents linked here. A good source for alternative storage charts would be your local health department. You can find the phone number by conducting an internet search for the county health department or at this website: Ask to speak to a food sanitarian.

Apr 03, 2019

What is the longest opened orange juice will last if it’s been refrigerated?

Ben Weaver
Apr 08, 2019

@Debbie - thank you for your comment. For quality, it would be best to use commercially packaged orange juice within 10 days of opening.

Mary K Pong
May 01, 2019

Glad to see this in writing. I have believed this for a long time about the quality of the packaged food still being edible. The time frame is the part I did not understand before reading this article.

Aug 06, 2019

Sealed bag of Gold Metal flour - used by date of 15Apr2012 . Is it still good/safe to use?

Ben Weaver
Aug 12, 2019

@Kathy - thank you for your comment. We would not recommend to use this as it may not be of great quality any longer. Should you have additional questions or concerns, please reach out to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Safe Food Hotline at 1-888-723-3366.

Kay !mac
Aug 30, 2019

How long does unopened jarred lemon curd last beyond the expiration date

Ben Weaver
Sep 04, 2019

@Kay !mac - thank you for your comment. We recommend to use this product by the date printed on the jar for best quality. If used outside of that date, as long as it is in good condition (meaning no obstructions to the jar, lid fully secured, and kept it cool conditions), it would still be safe however, it may lack flavor and quality. I hope this helps.

Sep 07, 2019

What the article is saying is basically the quality/taste may be off, yes if it looks "gross" don't eat it..
My 22 yr old thinks that once something hits that magic best by date... oh no, that's it's poison, gross ,etc... seriously kid just EAT it!
Very useful article

Sep 29, 2019

I have an unopened jar of coconut butter (well, I opened it today) expiration date of Sept smells and tastes fine. Is it still safe to eat?

Ben Weaver
Oct 02, 2019

@Andrea - thank you for your comment. Jarred food is safe to eat beyond the date printed. These dates are intended to identify when the product will be of best quality and flavor. After the date expires, the product may lose flavor or overall quality but, it would still be safe. For more information on dating, check out our Food Product Dating fact sheet. I hope this helps!

Nov 08, 2019

What is the shelf life for Dry Black Beans?

Ben Weaver
Nov 13, 2019

@Micheline - thank you for your comment. Dried beans are considered non-perishable. Meaning no matter how long you have them, they will not spoil. For freshness and quality however, this item should be consumed within 1-2 years if kept in the pantry. I hope this helps!

Mrs Leger
Nov 29, 2019

I have an unopened package of fig pieces from USDA lot # 7188 18152. What is the use by date for the figs

Dec 17, 2019

How can you tell if the canned beef from the government commodity program is still good if you have had it for awhile and there is no expiration date on it?

Ben Weaver
Dec 20, 2019

@Judy - thank you for your comment. Commercially canned goods are safe indefinitely. As long as the can is in good condition (no dents, bulging, rust or leakage) the product is safe.

Tammy veasley
Jan 12, 2020

If chicken was bagged 2018 will it be ok to eat now

Ben Weaver
Jan 15, 2020

@Tammy Veasley - thank you for your comment. Did you purchase or was it given to you frozen? If the chicken was bagged in 2018 and kept frozen the entire time, it would still be safe. If it was a fresh product and frozen within 1-2 days of purchase, it would also be safe. If you are unsure if the product was handled safely, we would not recommend to consume. I hope this helps.

Jan 16, 2020

Package black beans expired 2014 and te now w 2020 do i need to throw away

Ben Weaver
Jan 16, 2020

@June - thank you for your comment. We recommend to use dried beans within 2 years from date on package. After that the quality decreases. I hope this helps!

Larry Douglas
Jan 18, 2020

How long can expired chips stay on the sheff in stores?

Ben Weaver
Jan 22, 2020

@Larry Douglas - thank you for your comment. Dating (except for infant formula) is not federally regulated. It is regulated and enforced per state requirements. It would be best to consult with your State Department of Health to find this information. I hope this helps!

Feb 05, 2020

Hi i purchased a box of 100 Organic Green tea bags from Royal King China. However, i only realized after that it has no expiry date and the bar code is very different from the usual bar code listed for each country. Also, the box had USDA and CERES certified and the bar code is 99745 28502. The teabags are properly packaged and it smells freshly picked. But i am not sure about it because it gives me a headache after drinking. Can you please tell if this product is safe to consume. Thanks

Ben Weaver
Feb 06, 2020

@Gerauna - thank you for your comment. The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) manages programs that can address your concerns. Please reach out to them for further assistance. You can reach them at: (202)-720-8998. I hope this helps!

Feb 25, 2020

Ben Weaver, thank you for this information — but you did not answer the question posed by "Laura" ..." What about public organizations, like churches? What is the requirement to keep or toss food...?" It distresses me every week when our church newsletter asks for donations of food for the food pantry, but then says to check the dates on the products carefully because they will have to be thrown away if they are at or near the expiration date. Do food pantries really HAVE to throw out food when it hits or approaches the printed date? It seems awful to me to toss out food when people are hungry and could use it. In my home, we frequently use products past the date. Are there printed guidelines for food pantries?

Ben Weaver
Feb 26, 2020

@Pat - thank you for following up. 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. With an exception of infant formula, if the date passes during home storage, a product should still be safe and wholesome if handled properly until the time spoilage is evident. Spoiled foods will develop an off odor, flavor or texture due to naturally occurring spoilage bacteria. If a food has developed such spoilage characteristics, it should not be eaten. You can download and print our Food Product Dating fact sheet to reference later, here: I hope this helps!

Feb 27, 2020

Ben, I understand what the dates mean. My question is, Do Food Pantries REALLY have to throw out food that is at/past the date? The impression I get from food pantries is that they are REQUIRED (presumably by some law or government mandate) to throw the food out. I find that to be, quite frankly, irresponsible ... but I'm not sure if it is the food pantries or the government making this decision. I would like to know if the government has actually issued such a mandate to organizations that run food pantries.

Ben Weaver
Feb 27, 2020

@Pat - thanks for clarifying, Pat. Dating is not required by Federal law therefore there are no rules or regulations requiring food pantries or related entities to toss food when the date has expired however, your local or state department of health may. When it comes to requirements and laws for food pantries, each state makes their own. It would be best to further consult with your state or local department of health. I hope this clears things up.

Feb 27, 2020

Thanks for the response. I will look into that.

Mar 14, 2020

Ben, you have been so helpful. Just cleaned out my pantry and you've answered so many questions. Two remaining are about 1) grains past their expiration dates, specifically quinoa, wheat berries and rice and 2) shelf stable milk, individually packed (for school lunchboxes) and canned (evaporated and condensed). I'm not concerned about quality as I can make casseroles, but just safety. Thanks again!

Mia Perez
Apr 07, 2020

This may be a very helpful way to save foods and possibly a way to stop waste from happening, give more people a chance to fill their stomachs, and to stop more hunger around the world.