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.