Guru Kate: “Can I still eat food after the use-by date has passed?”

I’m impressed you can even find the use-by date. More often than not, I find myself turning canned corn over and over, only to find a few faint numbers printed between the rungs of the tin can. But, if you are lucky enough to find a use-by date, it doesn’t mean much.

That ruling actually comes to us from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Safety Inspection Service. The USDA website states, “‘use-by’ dates usually refer to the best quality and are not safety issues.” The line to be drawn between “quality” and “safety” is a bit hazy.

For example, if you leave milk on the counter, you can bet it’ll lose quality. Chunky milk is not quality milk. But is it unsafe to drink it on a dare? Not particularly. Milk chunks are the precursor to cheese and yogurt. It’s just nasty to eat milk chunks before they get to the yummy stage.

The chunky milk debacle brings me to another topic in food safety: shelf-stable foods versus foods that require refrigeration. Certain foods, like raw meat, carry the fairly large consequence of potential food poisoning if you don’t treat their “use-by” or “sell-by” date with respect. Bacterial growth is also possible if you leave the raw meat on the counter for too long.

On the other hand, shelf-stable foods can be safe for 2-5 years sitting in a pantry. They’re more likely to be fine a few months after their “use-by” date, as long as the cans don’t have dents and the cartons of shelf-stable milk haven’t been opened or broken in any way.

In fact, labeling a “use-by” or “sell-by” date isn’t even a federal law, except on infant formula. It’s required by 20 states, but besides that there is a lot of variation in food labeling.

This piece of advice should go for all Guru Kate articles, and particularly when it comes to food safety: use your best judgment.

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If the Italian salad dressing no longer looks or smells like it should, don’t use it. If the can of chili from the back of the pantry has so much dust on it that you can barely read the label, maybe it’s time to throw it out. If the orange juice starts to smell like it belongs in a flask, put it in a flask — just kidding!

When in doubt, toss it out.