If you’ve ever felt a bit confused by the “sell by”, “use by”, and best if used by” labels on food packaging, you’re not alone. Because of the lack of federal guidelines surrounding expiration dates and food quality standards, there is very little consistency among food manufacturers. Truthfully, the expiration labels on most food don’t always indicate whether or not it is safe to eat. If you’re having doubts, here are some general guidelines to help you along.
The point at which fresh meat goes bad varies. In general, fresh meat will last about 5 days in the fridge - unless it is ground. Ground meat often spoils the fastest, because any bacteria present during the grinding process is then distributed throughout the entire piece of meat, increasing the risk of food poisoning. The USDA advises eating or freezing ground meat within two days of bringing it home from the store. Fresh-sliced deli meat is usually okay to eat for three to five days, and the plastic-sealed varieties can last around two weeks. Of course, if your deli meat is slimy or doesn’t smell right, that’s a clear sign it’s time to throw it out.
Make sure to enjoy your fresh fish within 48 hours of purchase to minimize the chance of food-borne illness. When it comes to shellfish, scallops will last about 3 days, and clams, oysters, and mussels around 5 days. Oilier types of fish (tuna, salmon, etc) are prone to spoil faster, so bear that in mind as well.
As a general rule of thumb, the softer the cheese is, the quicker it will lose its quality. It’s best to eat very soft cheeses like ricotta within 7 days of buying it. Other soft cheeses like brie, goat and cream cheese should be eaten within two weeks. Harder cheeses, like parmesan and cheddar, can last between 3 and 6 weeks when refrigerated properly.
Although we usually associate E. coli with meat, vegetables can also be contaminated with it, so it’s a good idea to pay close attention to how much time they’re spending between the store and your plate. Zucchini and string beans have one of the shortest shelf lives, only lasting 3 to 5 days in the fridge. Cucumbers and most lettuce varieties will last 7 to 10 days, broccoli 7 to 14 days, and carrots 2 to 4 weeks. It’s worth noting that prepackaged salad mixes are more likely to harbor bacteria and spoil faster because of the extra handling, so make your salad “from scratch” if you want it to last longer. Check out this list for a more in-depth overview of produce shelf life: https://www.tasteofhome.com/article/heres-how-long-your-fresh-produce-will-really-last/
Most berries will go bad at around the three day mark, with the exception of blueberries, which can last up to a week. Always rinse your berries before you eat them to wash away any traces of mold, and freeze them to use in smoothies instead of throwing them away if they’re nearing their expiration date.
Food waste is a big problem in the U.S., with around 40% of all food being thrown away every year. When you consider that millions of Americans live with food insecurity, plus the impact food waste has on the environment, it’s a sobering thought. Make it a habit not to buy more food than you know you can eat, and if your food is near its expiration date, freeze it, compost it, or share it! For more tips on healthy eating, schedule your virtual consult with Dr. Jones here https://www.eohinfo.com/schedule-appointment.