An estimated 30 percent of the food supply in the United States gets thrown away. About $160 billion worth of food is wasted each year. While much of that food has spoiled, some may be simply outdated. Just because a food’s sell-by date has expired, it doesn’t mean the food is unsafe to eat.

Here are some tips to keep wholesome food from being wasted while avoiding avoid foodborne illnesses:

Product dating

Manufacturers date mark foods to help people and grocers decide when food is at its best quality. Except for infant formula, dates do not indicate the product’s safety and are not required by federal law. The dates marked on food packages provide information on the estimated period of time the product will remain fresh and tasty. It helps stores decide how long to display the product for sale.

Dates may be voluntarily applied as long as they are truthful and comply with federal regulations. Next to the date must be a phrase explaining the meaning such as "Best if Used By.”

Safety after the date passes

The quality of foods may deteriorate after the date passes, but if there are no signs of spoilage, the food should still be safe to eat. Food spoiled by bacteria usually develops an off odor, flavor or texture. Foods showing signs of spoilage, should not be eaten. Infant formula should never be used past the date on the package.

Here are some tips on buying, storing and throwing away food.

What not to buy

  • Foods without a label.
  • Bulging, dented, rusted or leaking cans.
  • Foods in torn packaging, with broken seals, or not in their original packaging.
  • Refrigerated foods past the “use-by” or “sell-by” dates.
  • Refrigerated foods that have not been kept cold, at 41 degrees F or lower.
  • Frozen foods in packages that show signs of thawing, staining or leaking.

Keeping foods safe at home

  • Refrigerate foods at 41 degrees F or lower. Stick to the “2-hour rule” for leaving food out of the refrigerator. This also applies to leftovers, restaurant leftovers and take-out foods.
  • Don't crowd the refrigerator so tightly that air can't circulate.
  • Follow label directions such as “refrigerate after opening.”
  • Use refrigerated ready-to-eat foods such as luncheon meats as soon as possible. A good rule of thumb is to use them within seven days after opening the package.
  • Separate raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs from ready-to-eat foods like cheese, luncheon meats, fruits and vegetables.
  • Keep frozen foods frozen until ready to use. Once thawed, use frozen foods within seven days.
  • Canned foods can be stored for a long time, often for many months, if the cans are unopened and undamaged.
  • After opening packaged foods, store and seal tightly in the original packaging or in a food storage bag or container.
  • Store foods on clean, dry shelves and away from cleaning supplies, poisons and garbage.

What to throw away

  • Refrigerated foods that have been left out for more than 4 hours.
  • Leftovers that have been at room (or car) temperature for more than 4 hours.
  • Thawed foods not used within seven days.
  • Canned foods that are bulging, dented, rusted along the seams, or leaking.
  • Packaged foods that shows signs of bugs or rodents.
  • Any food that looks, smells or tastes spoiled.

If you have health concerns about a store that stocks surplus or salvaged food, check with an Environmental Health Specialist at RiverStone Health. They can tell you if a store has been found to violate safe food-handling and storage practices. You can also see inspection results on the RiverStone Health website.

Marilyn Tapia, Director of Environmental Health Services at RiverStone Health, may be reached at 256-2770 or