Image: refrigerator full of leftover food
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Each year, 76 million Americans fall sick with foodborne illnesses, estimates the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many of those illnesses are a result of improper food handling at home, which includes eating food that has spent too much time on the refrigerator shelf.
updated 3/27/2009 8:15:53 AM ET 2009-03-27T12:15:53

It smells okay. You don't see any fuzz on it. So what if that bottle of barbecue sauce has been sitting in the back of your fridge since July 4, 2003? And that frost-covered lamb chop that's been chilling in your freezer since last year — it's still good, right?

There's always going to be something of indeterminate age in your kitchen, and you may be tempted to sniff, poke, and then taste it. But not so fast — you could be taking a risk you'll regret. Each year, 76 million Americans fall sick with foodborne illnesses and 5,000 die of them, estimates the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many of those illnesses are a result of improper food handling at home, which includes eating food that has spent too much time on the refrigerator shelf.

The fridge isn't the only problem spot, either. Food that's been in the freezer too long won't make you sick, but it certainly won't taste its best. And though canned and dried foods that are past their prime usually aren't a threat, they will lose nutritional value over time. (Eating food from a bulging can, however, could be potentially fatal because the swelling could signal bacterial contamination.)

"You can't count on sight or smell to tell you if food is safe or good to eat," says Elizabeth L. Andress, PhD, a food safety specialist at the University of Georgia. Pregnant women, young children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems are particularly vulnerable to food poisoning, which can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and body aches.

So skip the smell-prod-and-taste test, and follow our guide to food expiration date safety.

Food in the fridge
If a few items in your refrigerator have been there since the last millennium, you're not alone: When Tennessee State University researchers peeked into the fridges in 210 homes, they found moldy, spoiled, or outdated foods inside 24 percent of them.

"Many consumers don't understand that while refrigeration slows bacterial growth, it doesn't stop it," says Janet B. Anderson, RD, a clinical professor of nutrition and food sciences at Utah State University, who, when conducting a recent study, was horrified to find that 31 percent of respondents ate leftovers that were more than a week old.

The first step to ensuring the safety of your food supply is keeping track of when you purchased and opened each item. One easy way is to stash masking tape and a marking pen in the kitchen so you can label all edibles with "purchased on" and "opened on" dates. The next step is to pay close attention to the recommended storage times. But be warned: These are based on refrigerator temperatures of 40 degrees F and lower; anything warmer than that is a breeding ground for bacteria. In the Tennessee State study, an alarming 28 percent of the refrigerators were warmer than 40 degrees F. (For less than $12, you can buy a refrigerator thermometer that will help you keep food at the optimal temperature.)

Some refrigerated foods have expiration dates on their packages. But dating regulations vary from state to state, and many products come with no date at all. To avoid confusion — and possibly food poisoning — use the rules of thumb at the end of this article.

Food in the freezer
As long as food remains frozen, it will stay safe to eat. The flavor and texture, however, can deteriorate substantially over time, so you may want to think twice before serving your dinner guests that 2-year-old sirloin. Also keep in mind that freezing doesn't kill bacteria; it just puts them to sleep for a while. Once you thaw it out, follow the guidelines for refrigerated food.

Like refrigerator temperatures, freezer temperatures can vary. The recommended storage periods assume that your freezer is set at 0 degrees F. For every 5-degree increase in temperature, you should cut storage time in half. An important caveat: If you have the type of refrigerator with a small freezer compartment inside (one that doesn't have its own exterior door), don't keep anything in it longer than a week because these freezers cannot maintain temperatures as low as 0 degrees F.

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For best quality, follow the guidelines for frozen foods at the end of this article.

Food in the pantry
Because pasta, rice, and other dried foods don't contain enough moisture for bacteria to thrive, and canned food is airtight, pantry storage is also more a question of quality than safety. Toss any cans that are rusting, leaking, or bulging, and always put newly purchased items on the back of the shelf, so you use the oldest ones first. Then heed the rules that follow. (Unless otherwise noted, they apply to opened products that are kept in airtight containers after opening.)

No matter how fastidious you are, there's always going to be something that slips through your dating system or doesn't appear on any of the lists. In that case, remember this mantra: When in doubt, throw it out.

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