Is this food still good?

How to determine if food in your pantry is still safe.

Pantry items
Pantry items. Photo by Wade Syers, MSU Extension.

Whether you are getting ready to donate to a food pantry or take stock of what’s in your pantry, knowing if it is still safe to eat can be difficult. Some food items may display date labeling with the phrase “Best if used by” and others might have a set of numbers and letters. This may all seem confusing but by following a few simple guidelines, you will know what is still safe to eat.

Many people are surprised to find out there are no federal regulations that require date labeling on food other than infant formula. Food manufacturers use two types of dating: open dating and closed dating. Open dating is usually found on perishable food items such as meat or dairy products. Most foods in a grocery store will display this type of dating. Open dating includes a date followed by a statement such as "Best if Used By/Before," "Sell-By," “Use-By” or “Freeze-By.” Closed dating refers to a series of numbers or a production code that indicates when the product was manufactured. Closed dating can often be found along with open dating on many shelf-stable products.

Date labels are provided for consumers and stores to estimate how long food will be at its best flavor or quality. Food product dating is only a reference to food safety in the case of infant formula. For infant formula, the use by date ensures that it contains the correct amount of nutrients and that it is guaranteed to be usable. Infant formula that has passed its used by date may not go through a standard bottle nipple.

It is important to follow safe handling practices when purchasing and storing foods at home. When bringing home a new food, the first step is to determine what the proper storage conditions are for that item. Store shelf-stable items such as dry noodles in the pantry. Developing a first in first out policy (FIFO) for your home pantry is an excellent next step. Write the date items were purchased clearly in permanent marker, then place new products behind those that were already in the pantry.

But wait, are those dry egg noodles or is that cereal safe to eat? According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), most shelf-stable items are safe to eat even after they have gone past their use by date. If you want more detail on food product dating, visit the USDA’s Food Product Dating website.

Circumstances that lead to unsafe food are those where improper storage conditions are present. For example, if the packaging of a food item is damaged, such as dented, bulging or rusted cans, this food is no longer safe to eat.

Remember, if you feel that a food item is spoiled or is no longer safe, throw it away. If you have questions related to food storage or date labeling, you can browse Michigan State University Extension website, Ask an Expert or call the Michigan State University’s Food Safety Hotline at 877-643-9882.

To learn more about how to tell if home-canned goods are still safe to eat, please read "How old are your home-canned foods?"

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