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Do You Donate Canned Food Past its Expiration Date?

Tim Boyer's picture
Canned foods are safe beyond expiration dates

Should you feel a little guilty selecting canned food items from your pantry that are past its “sell-by” date and giving them to your kid’s food drive at school? Here’s a recent reminder from ABC News about what “sell-by” and “best-used-by” labeling really means on food items.


We’re all guilty of it at one time or another—digging through the pantry and picking out that old can of pumpkin pie mix or condensed milk with the sell-by dates expired and passing it onto our kids for their school food drive. But does this really make us a bad parent? Are we hurting anyone by doing this?

According to ABC News Good Morning America, those "sell-by" dates on your food items may seem like an easy way to tell when food should be thrown out, but the truth of the matter is that it turns out that in most cases, a "sell-by" or "best used by" date isn't an automatic warning sign that the food is spoiled.

In fact, according to one food expert on the show, those labels really don’t mean anything when it comes to indicating what the real condition—spoiled or not—the food item is in. Rather, its labeling required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, telling the store how long to display the product for sale―NOT that the product has gone bad once it reaches the "sell-by" or "best used by" date printed on the can.

According to Consumer Reports:

• ‘Sell by.’ This is the date by which manufacturers suggest that retailers remove the product from shelves. The goal is to ensure quality for a period of time after you buy it. That can be several days to several weeks, depending on the item. For instance, milk, assuming proper refrigeration, should last five to seven days past its sell-by date before turning sour.

• ‘Best by’ and ‘use by.’ Those terms tell you when to eat (or freeze) a product for the best quality. A jar of salsa may not taste as fresh and tangy as it’s supposed to, for example, and crackers may be soft instead of crisp after those dates.

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According to ABC News, the only federal requirements requiring expiration dates on food is with infant formula. A “best-used-by” date indicates the last date of the product’s peak quality. After the labeled date, the infant formula begins to gradually have fewer active nutrients as the product begins to degrade over time.

Canned Food Recommendations

So does this mean that canned food is forever? Forever is an absolute, and when it comes to food nothing other than possibly Twinkies or those yellow Easter marshmallow chicks may last forever. ABC News tells its viewers that when it comes to canned goods, here are the expected time limits before a canned food will likely go bad:

• Fruits: 1-2 Years

• Vegetables: 1-2 Years

• Beans: 1 Year

So give yourself a break from some holiday guilt when you donate that can of food that is a little past its sell-by date and make it a point to learn how to rotate your canned goods to ensure that your food is not wasted and well within a safe use time period.

For information about expired medications, here is what Dr. Oz has to say about which expired medications you can keep and which you should toss.

Reference: ABC News Good Morning AmericaFood Sell-By Dates: What They Really Tell You



Out of date food
"Are we hurting anyone by doing this?" Wow I can't believe you're asking this. Yeah you're hurting people, poor people who rely on the food bank! If you wouldn't eat it yourself, what makes you think it's acceptable to donate it for another human being to eat? A human being who is more desperate than you and will probably be less careful with their health because they need food, to make matters worse. I've eaten food bank food that's been expired by 4 or 5 years because there was nothing else to eat in the house and let me tell you I felt sick afterward. But you have to eat or else you'll die. Please don't do this. A new can of food isn't that expensive for people who are well off.
Thank you!!! I agree. How awful to think they People should just be happy with what they get. Do you feel they have less of a right to eat good food. Someone should be happy with your garbage. May you never be in there place and someone treat you as such!
This is how it works. People belive that if you are desperate or a begger that you should eat food thats tossed in the garbage at a local restaurant. The attitude is be happy with whatever you get. Even if it means getting botulism. They will say you should be thankful your lucky to get botox for free lol! Like that !
I eat my food that l buy that is expired, over 3 years. Food costs a lot and l feel if I can eat it and not get sick, I should be able to donate it. It's not just being mean. I work hard and donating isn't always easy, but I do it. I'm talking about cake mixes, canned veggies, hamburger helpers.
My conviction has always been that if I won't eat it, I won't donate it. I'm on the same page as you about it. Canned goods last longer than their sell by date, sure, but I'd eat most things that are "expired". I would never donate something I myself wouldn't eat. That's the difference. When you "donate" food you wouldn't eat yourself and expect people to be grateful... you show the world that you don't value the less fortunate as much as yourself. and this has been my experience when volunteering for food banks and canned food drives. People bring cans that have been expired for 3 years and get upset when I throw them away and educate them on the risks.
I eat food past it's expiration date all of the time. I go to outlet stores and buy crackers and cookies that are weeks past their 'best by' dates. If you were to use a can of tomato paste 3 months past it's 'best by' date in a pasta sauce I guarantee you that you would not know the difference. If I were in line at a food bank and I had a choice between half a bag of unexpired canned food and a full bag of recently expired canned food, I would take the full bag if I was smart.
No one should assume that people who go to food banks do not care about their health. The food donated should be subject to the same minimum standards as that eaten by people who go to stores for it. Expired food is NOT an acceptable donation. It is, in fact, an insult to those who it is directed to. If you can't do something right, don't do it at all. The food banks that use expired food should be shut down until they can offer products that uphold decent health practices. The fact that there is NO federal regulation regarding expired food shows just how inept our government is. As a developed country, we should be ashamed to settle for this level of care.
Paul W, a food item passed its "Sell By" date is not "expired". If you do not know how to check a food item for minimum standards then it's true that you don't have any business donating food items.
Wrong, Michael, they take these expired products off the shelf on their "sell-by" date for a reason: They don't want their customers getting sick. Allowing others' incompetence is no justification for your own.
Not according to the article above. Read it again. These foods are not expired and no longer fit to eat. Stores also take food off shelves to make room for newer items. "Sell by" date is a recommendation and canned food (as long as the can is not dented/damaged) & boxed items are fine afterwards. Like another woman said, certain discount stores sell surplus items that are past the "sell by" date.
"Sell-by date" is not a recommendation. It is a legal obligation. Stores take expired food off the shelves to make room for un-expired food. Expired food is far from "fine". It is taken off the shelf religiously by every store in the U.S. Give us the names of the stores you know that sell expired items, please?
Quote the law that requires stores to pull the items.
We can do better. These are unacceptable standards.
Our household is currently struggling severely , and, we have had to use our local food bank a few times in the last few months. I will be really honest... I DESPISE the fact I am being given expired food.... And a LOT of it DOES take much differently. Right now...eating Triscuits that expired on Sept., and they have an 'off tastes. Last week, went to make bran muffins from the premix stuff (this was what I had to make for breakfast and lunch...more about that later)...as soon as I opened the package I gagged...the 'of ' smell was extreme ...when I checked date, it was over two years expired and we just got it at the end of November when we went to the food bank. We rec'd puddings dated for Sept 2016 and my daughter (13 y / o) spit it out and asked my what was wrong with it....it looked curdled. I went through every thing we had been graciously given.... 30% was past date by more than a month, 15% more than 3 months. There was cereal from Costco that is gluten free and organic....it too smelled off because it doesn't have all that preservative crap in it to maintain freshness after the due date for the same length as the run-of-the-mill stuff. Additionally disturbing is the fact that I come home with 2 boxes of crackers 2 bags of cookies, a 1kg bag of chocolate peanut butter mini cups, a zip local baggies fill of reg Reese cups, 2 boxes of cereal, chocolate pudding, candy canes, 2 boxes of granola bars...a pack of pumpkin spice dessert bar mix (expired in Aug) For fresh food, I got 3 small potatoes (squishy to touch) and 7 onions. I rec'd a $10 gift card for the grocery store....its meant for my fresh food and meat...so I got milk, eggs and sugar and have $1.05 left for fruits, vegetables and meat. Otherwise our meals for the MONTH consist of a cple cans of flake tuna, couple of flake ham, a couple loaves of bread, a few cans of soup, 1pack of spaghetti noodles and 1 can pasta sauce, 2 boxes of kraft dinner, 1 can of zoodles, a few cans of peas and corn, 2 cans of beans, 4 juice boxes, 2 rolls of toilet paper, package of corn muffin mix. They had nothing for shampoo, no deodorant, toothpaste (my neighbor did get two toothpastes last week he tried to share, but they expired in 2008)....no feminem products , no sugar, coffee, ketchup or other condiments, other fresh food, dish soap, laundry soap, bar soap. We can't drink our water in our rental....so we have to buy that too, food bank never has water. I feel guilty for even mentioning all this because I do feel who am I to complain, just be thankful tere is a food bank to go to...BUT...i do feel as tho others who donate expired items because they themselves won't consume it, see us using the food bank of being less worthy of in - date, healthy food...so degrading... I am already ashamed enough I have to resort to this resource, now I get to feel like less of a person because others want to toss me that which isn't good enough for them. Now, don't get me wrong, if food in my house goes past date and it's not off tasting or smelling...then absolutely, I would eat it...but I sure as hell wouldn't donate it to those less fortunate because I think it's so very rude and insulting. I also rec'd 40% less this trip than the two other trips last fall....the only difference tho for those trips is we rec'd a LOT more junk food, sweets and processed foods, we did get some toothpaste and shampoo those times tho. I was told I would be notified about Xmas sharing baskets.... That never happened, we diid not have a Xmas dinner this year. I went twice to get food in January...fieat time it was closed because some snow was on the ground and the other time was just a sign saying they weren't there... came to find out it was closed because it was a fifth week in the month (I guess weeks with five months have people who don't eat for that extra week *shrugs*)...so from the middle of November til last Tuesday...we survived on Mr Noodles, bread and soda crackers with peanut butter and jam. Anything I could afford, I made sure my kid had first dibs, then spouse as he's a big boy and works hard. I just do my best to survive of coffee and bird size meals. So for those of you who have no appreciation for these shoes I am walking in (and I once wore the boots of a well off single mom who made good money and could provide, so I know the difference), maybe best to really listen to the experienced ones and give some thought to how you'd like to be treated if you were to be there.
I empathize with you, Bee. If all people can donate is nutrionless crap, then they should at least have the decency to make sure it is still is not expired. The food bank in my town gives away lots of "fresh" (vs frozen or canned) vegetables that is wilted by THE NEXT DAY. People are making money off of these "food banks", too, because they are the recipient of grants and tax money.
I never donate food that I would not eat myself. However, I eat food from our food storage that is past the "best if used before" date all the time. My experience is that dates have little if no meaning. If the can is in good condition, and there is no bulging, the contents should be good as well as long as they look and smell acceptable. Truthfully, I've never opened a can that looked good from the outside and looked bad on the inside. Bottom line: I will continue to donate canned or packaged food that is past the "best if used by" date. The food bank is free to discard it if they so choose to.