Proper selection of foods at the grocery store and appropriate storage and handling practices at home are necessary to maintain the quality and safety of commercially processed foods and perishable foods. When foods are improperly handled or stored, bacteria can grow, causing the product to spoil quickly or be unsafe to eat—regardless of the expiration date on the package.
Commercially processed foods are usually found stored on grocery store shelves and include foods that:
Packaged, perishable foods are those that spoil quickly if not stored at a refrigerated temperature of 40 degrees or lower, promptly after their purchase. They include:
Following are some guidelines to follow when buying, handling, and storing packaged foods.
Consumers rely on product dating to determine when to purchase or use a product. The quality of nearly all food products tends to decline after manufacturing to a point where the product is no longer acceptable to the consumer. Food manufacturers determine the dates during which the food product will be at an acceptable level of quality (i.e., best texture, appearance, aroma, and flavor) under normal storage conditions. These dates are NOT an indication of product safety.
Except for infant formula and some baby foods, food companies are not required by federal law to date their products, though some state regulations do require them for certain products. Even so, many companies include them to assist consumers.
Commercially processed foods such as canned products and other packaged goods can be suitable for eating after the sell-by or best-by date if they have been handled and stored properly—though their quality may have diminished. If products have not been stored or handled properly, then they may not be suitable for consumption and should be discarded.
The following are practices that consumers should follow in order to properly store and handle their commercially packaged products after bringing them home:
Use the Guidelines for Storage of Some Commercially Canned, Packaged, and Perishable Foods chart included here for more information.
Guidelines for Storage of Some Commercially Canned, Packaged
|Product||Pantry or room storage (unopened)||Refrigerator storage|
(opened, 40 F)
|Freezer storage (0 F)|
|Canned, jar, or plastic (shelf-stable)|
|Baby food − jars||1−2 yrs||1−3 days|
|Coffee − cans||2 yrs (2−4 wks opened)||2 mos||6 mos|
|Fish||1 yr||1−2 days|
|Fruits, fruit juices||1 yr||3−5 days||1−2 months (opened)|
|Ham||2 yrs||3−5 days|
|Mayonnaise||2−3 mos||2 mos|
|Meat, poultry||2-5 yrs||3−4 days||4−6 weeks (opened)|
|Peanut butter||6−9 mos (2−3 mos opened)||4−6 mos|
|Vegetable soup||1 yr||3−4 days||2−3 mos (opened)|
|Vegetables||1 yr||3−5 days||1−2 mos (opened)|
|Beef − fresh ground||1−2 days*||3−4 mos|
|Beef − fresh steaks, roasts||3−5 days*||6−12 mos|
|Chicken − fresh parts||1−2 days*||9 mos|
|Chicken − fresh whole||1−2 days*||1 yr|
|Ham − fully cooked whole||1 week*||1−2 mos|
|Hot dogs, lunch meats||3−7 days (2 wks unopened)||1−2 mos|
|Pork − fresh chops||3−5 days*||4−6 mos|
|Butter||1−3 mos||6−9 mos|
|Cheese − hard (i.e., cheddar, swiss)||3−4 wks (3−6 mos unopened)||6 mos|
|Cheese − soft||1 week||6 mos|
|Milk||8−20 days||3 mos|
|Fresh, in shell||3−5 weeks|
|Hard boiled||1 week|
|Pasteurized liquid||3 days (10 days unopened)||1 yr|
|Fish − fresh, lean fillets||1−2 days||6−10 mos|
|Oysters, clams − shucked||4−5 days||3 mos|
|Shrimp − fresh||4 days||3−6 mos|
|Other packaged foods|
|Breads − purchased||5−7 days||1−2 wks||2−3 mos|
|Cake mixes||6−9 mos|
|Cereals − ready-to-eat||1 yr (2−3 mos opened)|
|Herbs − dried; spices − ground||6 mos||1−2 yrs|
|Flour − white||6−8 mos||1 yr||1−2 yrs|
|Fruit − pre-cut, fresh||2−4 days||2−3 mos|
|Nutritional supplements − adult||As stated on the container||2 days|
|Salads − pre-cut, bagged||2 days (10−14 days unopened|
|* Or by the date on the package.|
If the product date has expired, and the product has been handled and stored properly, then evaluate the product before potential use, following these guidelines:
For more information, go to: www.ext.vt.edu.
Association of Food and Drug Officials. 1987. A Pocket Guide to Can Defects.
Roberts, T., and P. Graham. Revised 2001. Food Storage Guidelines for Consumers. Virginia Cooperative Extension publication 348-960. http://pubs.ext.vt.edu/348-960/.
University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension. 2005. Keeping Food Safe. Family Living Programs; Wisconsin Nutrition Education Program publication B3474. http://learningstore.uwex.edu/pdf/B3474.pdf.
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food Safety and Inspection Service. Revised 2007. Food Product Dating. Food Labeling Fact Sheet. www.fsis.usda.gov.
USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. 2002. Cold Storage Chart. www.foodsafety.gov/~fsg/f01chart.html.
This publication does not include information on foods canned at home. For more information on home canning, refer to Preserving Foods at Home, Virginia Cooperative Extension publication 348-027. http://pubs.ext.vt.edu/348-027/.
Virginia Cooperative Extension materials are available for public use, re-print, or citation without further permission, provided the use includes credit to the author and to Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, and Virginia State University.
Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Virginia State University, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating. Alan L. Grant, Dean, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; Edwin J. Jones, Director, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg; Jewel E. Hairston, Administrator, 1890 Extension Program, Virginia State, Petersburg.
May 1, 2009