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How to Tell if Food is Expired

Posted in Food Safety on May 31, 2022

It isn’t always obvious when food is expired, and expiration dates are not always correct. If you are unsure whether something is safe to consume, the best option is to throw it away and not risk foodborne illness. However, here are some general signs you can look out for to tell if your food is expired.

Signs that Food is Expired

The more obvious signs that an item has expired are if it’s stale, smells sour or rancid, has turned gray or greenish, or has visible mold. Then you definitely know it’s time to toss it in the trash. Here are some more subtle signs:


  • Signs of Sprouting: If you see sprouts growing on your vegetables, such as onions, peppers, or potatoes, they should be discarded.
  • Wrinkly Skin or Peeling: Fresh fruits and vegetables, like tomatoes, berries, or peppers, will develop wrinkly or peeling skin and/or go soft and shrivel when they first start decomposition. At this point, they may be on the verge of going bad, but if they begin to weep moisture, it’s time to toss them.
  • New Texture: Crisp vegetables, such as carrots, celery, or zucchini, will lose their crispness and become more rubbery.
  • Slime: Any slimy film on produce is a definite sign it has expired.

Fresh Meats and Seafood

  • Opalescent Sheen: If seafood or fresh meats are sticky or slimy and/or have an iridescent sheen, they should be discarded. A slimy texture means bacteria is already growing.
  • Fishy Smell: Surprisingly, fish shouldn’t smell too fishy. Fresh fish should have a clean ocean smell that is almost sweet.

What Expiration Date Labels Mean

Federal regulations do not require date labeling on foods, with the exception of baby formula. As a result, the expiration dates are the manufacturer’s best guesses as to how long their food will remain at peak freshness, not how long the food is safe.

Best If Used By/Before
The food will have the best quality or flavor until this date.

Use By
This is the date the manufacturer suggests the food should be consumed by but it is not a safety date.

Sell By
The sell by date is a suggestion from manufacturers on how long retailers should display a product.

The expiration dates on food are often conservative, and as a result, a lot of food is thrown out prematurely. The best way to know whether food has spoiled is to look for warning signs and trust your gut. If you became sick from eating contaminated food, you may be able to recover compensation in a product liability lawsuit with the help of a food safety attorney.

How to Avoid Food Waste

  • Follow expiration dates as a general guide, not a hard and fast rule.
  • Freeze food before it goes bad.
  • Grocery shop often and buy less.
  • Make a shopping list and stick to it—try not to buy more food than you’re likely to cook.
  • If you only need a small amount of produce for a recipe, shop the salad bar or buy frozen veggies.
  • Try a food waste audit for two weeks, where you write down the foods you tend to throw out.
  • Get creative by using fruit that is about to go bad in a new recipe.
  • Compost food past its prime to enrich soil and help plants grow.