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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
Jun 27, 2013

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!