can expiration date
Julie Hambleton
Julie Hambleton
January 19, 2024 ·  5 min read

How to Tell Whether Expired Food Is Safe to Eat

We’ve all been there – that salsa that’s been sitting in the fridge for a while or that food item that looks and smells fine but is past the date on the packaging. Do you eat it or throw it away? We all seem to have different opinions on eating “expired” food. We’re here to clear up the doubts about what is and isn’t safe to eat.

When And When Not To Eat Expired Food

Food waste is one of the world’s biggest problems, especially in North America. Millions of pounds of food that is perfectly good to eat get thrown out every year because it is past the date on the packaging. The question is, what do all the terms used – best before, expiration date, etc. – actually mean? When and when isn’t it actually safe to eat so-called “expired” food? (1)

Confusion around labeling is widespread and greatly adds to the amount of food waste in America every day. There is also a lack of regulation of these terms in some circumstances that makes this even more difficult. This is what each of the means, so you can better determine what has actually expired food and therefore unsafe to eat and what isn’t.

1. Best Before/Best If Used By

These two terms actually have nothing to do with whether or not food has gone “bad”. They are actually referring to the quality. This is the manufacturer’s way of saying if you eat this after the specified best before date and the quality is not up to your expectations, it’s because you waited too long to eat it.

2. Sell By

This is a message from the manufacturer to the retailer telling them when to pull a product from the shelf. The manufacturer wants to make sure that the food item tastes the way it should not only when the customer buys it, but for an appropriate amount of time afterward. For example, milk should be sold five to seven days prior to its expiration date, minimum.

3. Use By

This term also has nothing to do with safety. If you see this term, just like the other two, it is referring to when the manufacturer can no longer guarantee the item’s quality. Essentially, if it says “expiration date”, this is the only one that actually refers to the quality.

When To Actually Throw Food Away

Besides whether or not a food item is actually beyond its expiry date, how do you know when something might be unsafe to eat? These are some tips you can use to keep yourself and your family safe.

Canned Food Items

Most canned foods will last two to five years, as long as they are stored properly. That being said, regardless of how new a product is if the can has dents, bulges, or other damage, it is best not to use them. A dent could signify even a tiny puncture, letting in bacteria on the outside of the can inside the food. A bulge could likely mean that the can is contaminated with bacteria that will cause food-borne illness.

Dried goods such as rice, beans, and lentils, and other types of grains also don’t really go bad provided they’re stored in a cool, dry place. Naturally, always check to ensure rodents and other critters haven’t made their way into the bags. (2)

If It Has Mold, Throw It Away

We’re not talking about just a part of it, we mean the whole thing. Once soft food has developed mold, the spores are already all the way through the food. This includes fruits, vegetables, bread, soft cheeses, and other dairy products. One slice of bread has mold? Toss it. A few moldy berries? Toss the whole container. The spores can be harmless, they can cause mild gastric distress, or they can go all the way up to fatal. One loaf of bread isn’t really worth the risk.


Store-bought eggs should be kept in the fridge for no more than five weeks. If you notice “sweat” on the shells, as well, you should throw them in the bin. Egg cartons usually have an expiry date on them that you can use as a reference.


Meat should always be kept in the fridge. If it is at room temperature for more than two hours, it should not be eaten. Naturally, if it smells bad or has a slimy texture, this is also a good indication that the meat is bad. Once thawed, frozen meat cannot be re-frozen, either. If the meat was vacuum sealed, be prepared that at first, it might smell a bit strange when you open the packaging. Wait a few minutes and if it still smells bad, don’t eat it.

Dairy Products

The only dairy product that you can “cut out” the mold is on hard cheeses. You need to cut a minimum of two and a half centimeters around the mold on all sides. (3) With all other dairy products, don’t let them sit outside of the fridge for more than two hours. If you have any doubts, throw them away.

Butter can also be left out of the fridge, but be aware that it will likely go bad in a few days. If you want it to last longer, keep it in the fridge.


Most condiments and sauces can be left out for anywhere from a few months to even a few years, depending on the ingredients. Check the dates on the packaging for reference. Naturally, if there is any mold growth, toss them.

Baked Goods

These depend entirely on the amount of moisture in the item. Muffins and cakes, for example, will have a shorter life span than say cookies. Store them in the freezer if you want them to keep longer and stay fresh for long periods of time.

When In Doubt, Throw It Out

If you’ve followed all of these guidelines and you are unsure if something is safe to consume, throw it away. It’s better not to risk the health and safety of yourself and your family over one or two food items.

Keep Reading: Italian Law: To Send Unsold Food To Charities Instead Of Dumpsters


  1. How to Tell Whether Expired Food Is Safe to Eat.” Consumer Reports. Lea Ceasrine.
  2. Your Ultimate Guide To How Long Food Can Be Left Out At Room Temp (And When You Should Toss It).” So Yummy. Olivia Harvey.
  3. Nutrition and healthy eating.” Mayo Clinic