Not every date you see on your food is an expiration date. Here are four common dates you may see in the grocery store and what they really mean.
Sell-by date: How long the store has to display the product
Use-by date: When manufacturer thinks the product will be at its peak quality
Best if used by date: The best date for flavor and quality
Closed by date or coded dates: The packing number that the manufacturer uses
None of these are expiration dates nor do they indicate whether food is safe to eat or not. In fact, the FDA allows manufacturers to sell almost any food past these dates, with baby formula being the exception. What’s more, manufacturers aren’t required to put any of these dates on their food; the decision is totally up to them.
Here are ten of the riskiest foods to consume past their expiration dates…
1. Alfalfa Sprouts
Alfalfa sprouts are packed with nutrients, and calorie for calorie, gram for gram, they’re one of the healthiest veggies on the planet. However, it’s very important that you use them quickly once you buy them, because they quickly become bacteria magnets. In fact, alfalfa sprouts attract more germs than leafy greens, especially if you accidentally leave them unrefrigerated. If that happens, you’re best off to cut your losses and just toss them out instead of taking chances. You stand to lose a lot more than a couple of dollars if you come down with a case of food poisoning.
Like leafy greens, alfalfa sprouts should be stored in the refrigerator, ideally in an airtight container. As a general rule of thumb, you should try to eat them within two to three days after purchase. They make a great addition to sandwiches and salads, so if you get creative, you’ll find no shortage of ways to eat up these healthy veggies.
2. Deli Meat
We hear so many news stories about E. coli and Listeria bacteria in processed deli meats. These bacteria are prevalent in both prepackaged deli meats, and in the sliced variety you ask your butcher to prepare for you at your grocery store’s deli counter. As a general rule of thumb, deli meats are best consumed within three days of the date of purchase. Under no circumstances should you eat deli meats that are more than a week old.
Listeria bacteria is particularly dangerous, as the form of food poisoning it causes can be fatal in extreme cases. From a general standpoint, it’s probably best to steer clear of processed deli meats altogether, as they also tend to be very high in nitrates. Nitrates have been linked to a long list of health problems, including certain forms of cancer. If you do keep deli meat as part of your diet, choose fresher, natural, nitrate-free alternatives and eat it promptly.
3. Mixed Greens
Mixed greens including baby spinach, arugula, spring mix, packaged salad lettuce and other leafy veggies, don’t keep very well after their due date. So if their wilted appearance and slimy coating and doesn’t turn you off, think about the bacteria and pathogens lurking beneath your sandwich bread. While these products are sterilized and safe for consumption if you eat them promptly, they can very quickly become covered in disease-inducing bacteria.
Carefully check the best-before date before you open the package, and use safe storage guidelines to help keep your mixed greens fresher for the longest possible period. If you’re going to keep them in the bag they came in, roll it down to seal off the opening, and add a clothespin or elastic band to prevent oxygen from entering. Better yet, keep them in a sealed, airtight container and eat them within 48 hours of opening the package.
Eggs pack more nutrients per calorie than the vast majority of other foods, and they are an inexpensive and delicious source of protein. It’s no wonder that they’ve become a breakfast staple, but if you’re thinking about cracking open an egg that’s past its expiry date, think again. Expired eggs are one of the most common causes of foodborne illness. Eating them can cause mild symptoms ranging from abdominal discomfort, gas and diarrhea to full-blown food poisoning.
In the United States, egg packing companies are not required by law to provide an expiry date, but they must stamp the date at which the eggs were packed onto every carton. If you store your eggs in the refrigerator, you can safely eat them for up to four weeks after they were packed. However, leave them any longer and you’ll be increasing your risk of upsetting your stomach or worse.
Many people would shy away from slurping down an oyster in the best of times, but if they’ve gone past their expiry date, they are especially unappealing. Not only are expired oysters foul-smelling and slimy, but they can also be downright deadly. This is because the kind of bacteria that builds up in rotten oysters – V. vulnificus – causes a severe form of food poisoning.
V. vulnificus bacteria causes a type of food poisoning that affects the bloodstream, sending the body into septic shock. This type of food poisoning can be very difficult to treat, and the prognosis generally isn’t good for patients who come down with it. If you’re an oyster aficionado, be especially careful to make sure your favorite treat is fresh. Steer clear if you’re in any doubt whatsoever, and only buy your oysters from a trustworthy source known for both freshness and quality.
Much like oysters, shellfish and shrimp are very prone to bacterial contamination. These bacteria buildups begin the minute the shrimp is removed from the ocean, and it can affect frozen products just as much as fresh ones. Shrimp rings are very popular at parties, especially during the holiday season, but you should be very cautious if you’re eating shrimp that’s been unrefrigerated for an extended period of time. As a general rule of thumb, if it’s not cold anymore, you should avoid eating it.
Shrimp, shellfish and scallops are all prone to these types of bacterial buildups. You can kill a lot of these bacteria by cooking them, but if you’re going to serve them raw, be sure to follow safe food handling guidelines and take extra care to be certain the seafood hasn’t passed its expiry date.
7. Raw Ground Beef
E. coli bacteria are the single most common cause of food poisoning, and do you know where it originates? These microbes come from cattle intestines, and as such, they are present to a greater or lesser degree in practically all raw beef products. If the beef is processed and handled safely, it won’t become a problem. It’s only once you fail to follow safe handling and processing guidelines that you open yourself up to the possibility of trouble.
To prevent getting sick from eating ground beef, always make sure to cook it thoroughly before consuming it. And, of course, you should never eat it past its expiration date. If you buy ground beef on sale, chances are it’s because the expiry date is approaching. Be sure to put it in the freezer right away and eat it within 24 hours of thawing it if you purchase it under those circumstances.
8. Fresh Berries
Once berries go bad, they attract large quantities of cyclospora, a type of bacteria that lead to fecal food poisoning. While this type of food poisoning isn’t as dangerous as some other forms, it’s still something you definitely want to avoid, unless you want to spend a few days with chills, shivers, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. As a general rule of thumb, aim to eat fresh berries within about three days of purchase.
Fortunately, it’s easy to spot a berry that’s gone bad. Fresh berries are brightly colored, with taut skins and plump bodies. Spoiled berries lose their shape, quickly breaking down into a slimy, watery, discolored mush. You may also notice buildups of mold on the skins of the berries before they start to break down. This is particularly common with strawberries. Extend their storage lives by laying them flat on a sheet of paper towel, then covering them and storing them in the fridge.
9. Soft Cheese
With hard cheeses, like cheddar, it’s often safe to cut off the outer edges if they’re showing signs of mold growth and eat the fresh cheese underneath. However, this practice doesn’t extend to soft cheeses, like brie. If you’re finding mold on the edges of your soft cheese, don’t eat it. You may end up with a case of listeria food poisoning. Instead, toss it in the garbage can and head down to the grocery store to buy a fresh supply.
Dairy products in general pose a heightened risk of food poisoning, since practically all dairy products contain significant amounts of bacteria. Some, like yogurt, are even the product of controlled spoilage, in which bacteria are encouraged to grow. Cheese is similar, which is why you have to be very careful about eating it. Always store it wrapped up, in the refrigerator, and never eat it past the “best before” date.