General Question

dalepetrie's avatar

What is your take on food expiration dates for canned/bottled foods?

Asked by dalepetrie (17923 points ) March 22nd, 2010

Specifically, do the rules change depending on whether the can/bottle has been opened, do they bear any relation to what is stamped on the outside of the container either before or after (or both) the time at which the container is opened? Does it depend on the specific product? I’ll use tomato juice as an example, as this is a real situation I just encountered and had to make a decision on, you can use that example, or use another product.

OK, so I had two identical plastic jugs of tomato juice. One had never been opened, but it had an expiration date about 1 to 2 months ago. The other jug of tomato juice was open and half gone and had an expiration date 13 months in the future. It did not look or smell funny, there was no detectable mold or fungus of any kind on the juice, but it was pushed to the back of my fridge, and I believe it to have been in there for a good 4 to 6 months.

So, would you in this situation…

a) use the bottle which SAYS it doesn’t expire for 13 months, even though you know it’s been open for 4 to 6 months and throw away the unopened bottle.
b) use the unopened bottle which SAYS it expired 1 to 2 months ago, because you trust that as long as it’s not opened, it would stay good, and throw away the open bottle.
c) use both bottles, the open one first and then the unopened one.
d) use neither and get some fresh juice at the store.

I felt more comfortable using the unopened bottle. What would you have done, and how do you regard printed expiration dates? Can some things be used a week, a month, a year after their date while others, regardless of the date you throw out x days after you open it? What are your rules?

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23 Answers

Seek's avatar

Expiration dates are a guideline.

They’re basically intended to say “ok, if someone with only basic common sense is completely lax about taking care of their stuff, how long should this last?”

That’s why the expiration date on meat is yesterday, and why cereal can “last” for years.

In that situation, I’d probably ditch the old juice, just as a precaution and keep the unopened juice. If the expiration date on the unopened juice was several years ago, it’d be an issue, but a few months isn’t anything to worry about.

susanc's avatar

Agree with you both.

phillis's avatar

I do C all the time. If the food is notorious for salmonella (mayonnaise-based salad dressings, chicken, pork, etc.) then I keep them either frozen or refridgerated, period. If they are left out, they are thrown out.

But some expiration dates are for preservatives, not freshness. Tomato juice is one such item. There are preservatives in most of the brands that maintain color. The color fades after awhile, even if you never open the can. They don’t want people thinking that this is an accurate representation of thier color, so they use the shlef life of the preservatives as thier freshness date. They are perfectly drinkable. Canned vegetables are the same way.

njnyjobs's avatar

Once the container is opened, expiration dates in the future are no longer valid. Depending on the item, the perishable shelf life can be as quick as 3 days and as much as 2 weeks. I would rather hazard on an unopened tomato juice that had an “expiration Date” of 1–2 months ago, than a container that was opened 6-months ago.

thriftymaid's avatar

That’s a whole lot of thought about tomato juice.

lilikoi's avatar

I’d check out the opened one. If all signs point to it’s fine, then I’d use it. Same process applies to unopened one. Packaged crap lasts a long time if they are sealed. There are often a lot of preservatives added to the product specifically for this purpose, and being airtight certainly helps. Once it is opened, the expiration date no longer applies. You have to use your senses to determine if it is still good or not. I am willing to go pretty far out on a limb on most foods, except dairy products of which I take no chances whatsoever.

Symbeline's avatar

Fuck it, if it doesn’t smell like death, good enough for me. I’ve eaten and drunk things that were expired up to a year ago and it was still good.
Depends what of course, but a lot of things like canned goods keep for a long time when they remain unopened.

Dog's avatar

I drink beer beyond the “freshness date.” Like it matters with Coors Light…

janbb's avatar

Expration dates represent the shelf life for the unopened item. After that, it’s the old scratch and sniff test that’s the most valid.

Symbeline's avatar

@Dog Haha I do too. I love when the store is trying to get rid of its outdated beer, and they sell two dusty 750ml bottles of nine percent for under ten books…those fools know not what they do! XD

faye's avatar

I gave my mother-in-law prune juice that had been open in my fridge at the back for gawd knows how long. It made her stomach sick so I had a better look at what was left. It had fermented into bad booze! No mold.

janbb's avatar

@faye Was that an accidental accident?

faye's avatar

I didn’t mean it but I wasn’t altogether sorry!! Mean woman- bigoted.

SeventhSense's avatar

Bottles might be questionable. As far as cans anything post 1957 as long as they are unopened. You need something in the bunker.

Your_Majesty's avatar

I usually avoid to use product that is about to expired in 6 months. It’s better to prevent than to cure. If it’s just a can of tomato you can dispose it(assume it has been eaten/stolen by someone). It’s cheap and you won’t feel guilty for saving your healthiness.

dalepetrie's avatar

FWIW – thanks to all. I had already made the decision, but I was curious what other people do. In this case, I wanted to use a couple cups of tomato juice for chili. I dumped the one that was in the fridge, because I assumed that the April 2011 expiration date was really more if it hadn’t been opened, being a plastic bottle and not a metal can, I thought it was probably the safest bet, since the juice was already half gone anyway and generic to boot, it wasn’t all that expensive. So I used the one that expired late January 2010 but which hadn’t been opened. I did indeed boil the chili for a long time, not out of fear, but just to thicken it, and no one got sick, nor did it taste bad in any way.

SeventhSense's avatar

@dalepetrie
Actually the can is your safest bet. Canned food is hermetically sealed and can last for many years. And the can is made of stuff that we already have in our bodies unlike the plastics. I’ve eaten canned food 5 years old with no ill effects.

dalepetrie's avatar

@SeventhSense – I’ve heard that. I remember seeing on some show, I think it was the History Channel’s Life After People, that there is still canned food at the encampment at the North Pole from an expedition over 100 years ago that would be edible. That and fruit cake…it would be edible after 100 years because of the alcohol.

SeventhSense's avatar

Exactly. Safest thing to eat after a nuclear war.

downtide's avatar

Expiry dates on canned & bottled food refer to storage time if unopened. There would be further instructions printed on the label (usually) for instructions on storage time after opening. Usually something like “once opened, keep refrigerated and use within 3 days”.

Things like ketchup or mustard will keep for ages even opened. Half a can of soup, I wouldn’t keep more than 3 days once opened.

Canned food keeps decades unopened. My basic rule of thumb is ignore the date and just go by smell. If it’s gone off it’s usually because there was a tiny hole in the can, and you will be able to tell when you open it. You’ll want to leave all the windows open and not set foot in the kitchen again for a month.

SeventhSense's avatar

@downtide
Mustard…my Lord I have mustard from the Civil War that I’m pretty sure is still good…now the sauerkraut..meh…

Storms's avatar

If you open a sealed food container, you let bacteria in, making it perishable.

Canned foods will last practically forever but all of the nutritional value disappears in 10–20 years depending on how nutritious it was in the first place. It will still be a source of life-sustaining calories in a pinch.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

To go with inspection or printed date goes largely to the product with me. Certain things have a long shelf life even if opened like syrup and honey. Dairy products I would ditch the quickest because they go bad quicker. In your case I would inspect the tomato sauce that was not yet expired. As you say no discernable odor, visible mold or change in texture I would use it, but I would have also used the unopened one also. If your fridge was at the right temperature and the paste was closed properly I believe it is one of those items that has a bit of shelf life (not everything does but some way more than others.) The posted date is a CMA from the food packers and such so they can say we were not the fault when the fool poisoned himself with outdated food he should have tossed.

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