Sam Bauman: Is the food in your fridge still safe?
First off, we tend to stuff our refrigerators, packing things so it’s hard to see what we’ve got. But air needs to circulate to keep food cold. Leave space so you can see what’s in there and where.
That said, what does the phrase on the package mean when it says “use by” and date. Using food that has been on the shelf or in the fridge after a “use by” won’t put you at risk for food-borne illnesses, says Ben Chapman, North Carolina State University staffer.
Then why the warning dates? “They’re more about “food quality than food safety,” says Robert Gravani of Cornell University and cocreator of the new Department of Agriculture Food Keeper app, told the Washington Post.
Food may not be at its peak after the “use by” date, but problems of staleness and color changes are quality problems, not safety matters. Food may show mold, become rancid or spoil otherwise before they become unsafe.
But with meat, ground beef or chicken, you can’t assume they won’t be bad before their labeled date. Bugs are responsible for 48 million illnesses and 3,000 deaths from food borne pathogens. You can’t see them or smell them, unlike mold, sliminess.
The Feds don’t require use by dates on anything other than infant formula (the concern is nutritional safety), but other states do. The USDA offers these definitions for consumers, says the Washington Post:
“Sell by” Makers suggest that products be removed from shelves by the date. The aim is for several days from when the consumer bought the product. This can be several days or weeks depending on the food. Milk, assuming proper refrigerating, should lasts several days past the date before turning sour.
“Best by” or “use by” tell the consumer to eat or freeze for best quality. Salsa may not taste as good past the date.
Makers use a variety of methods to set the cutoff dates.
The dates are as suggestions, not absolute. So Gravani says if something is out of date, don’t rush to toss it out.
Here are five tips for safe dining:
Watch for mold, some can cause allergies or breathing problems, others may offer mycotoxins that can cause illness. Even if the mold is in one spot, toss it. Skip the sniff test, certain molds have spores which can be inhaled. Exceptions or for dry salami and country hams, which can be scrubbed off. Also for hard cheeses such as cheddar and Parmesan and cheeses made with mold, just cut off the mold and enjoy.
Keep cold meat at 37 degrees or colder; cooked meat at 140 degrees or warmer. Defrost meat in the fridge, cook fully and refrigerate leftovers within two hours. Don’t let raw meat touch other food and clean up juices from cutting boards and sinks.
Use a meat thermometer. Old methods of testing for doneness are unreliable. Safe temperature for beef roasts, pork roasts and fresh ham is 140 degrees. For precooked hams that one reheats and for chicken and turkey, aim for 145 degrees.
Avoid certain foods. The fridge slows growth of most pathogens but not listeria. Deli meat is a big source of listeria. The meat may not cause illness when you buy it but because bacteria multiply over time, you want to use it in just a few days. Deli meats and hot dogs should be hated to 165 degrees.
Use eyes and nose. Regardless of the package date, avoid obviously spoiled goods. Never taste a food that may have gone bad. Here’s Consumer Reports take on when to toss foods listing storage time for best quality and when to trash:
Eggs — 3 to 5 weeks, trash when odd color or odor is detected.
Milk — one week, odd odor and separation.
Yogurt — 1-2 weeks, mold and odd odor.
Hard cheese (cheddar, Parmesan) — 6 months unopened, 3-4 months opened.
Soft cheese (Brie) — 1-2 weeks, mold, odd odor, sliminess.
Cream cheese — 2 weeks, mold, odor.
Poultry — 1-2 days for raw, 3-4 days for cooked, odd color, slimy.
Meats — 3-5 days raw, 3-4 days cooked, odd color, slimy.
Ground meat — 1-2 days raw, odd color, slimy.
Seafood — 1-2 days raw, 3-4 days cooked, odd color or odor.
Deli meats — 3-5 days, odd color, odor or slime.
High-acid canned foods —12-18 months on shelf, 5-7 days in fridge, bulging cans, spurting.
Low-acid canned goods — 2-5 years on shelf, 3-4 days in fridge, bulging can, odd color, odor.
Rice and dried pasta — 2 years on shelf, 3-4 days in fridge, mold, bugs.
Fruit and vegetables — varies from 3 days to few weeks, mold, odor.
Cooking oil — 10-12 months on shelf, 1-3 months open, odd odor.
You might want to clip this and put it on the fridge door.
Personally, I was inspired to paw through my fridge and toss anything that I could not remember recently using. Made it a lot easier to find that bacon I tucked away.
Sam Bauman writes about senior affairs, among other things, for the Nevada Appeal.