Food Quality & Safety
Storage does not improve the quality of any food. The quality of a food will also not decrease significantly during storage as long as the food is stored properly and used within the recommended time frame.
Quality is not the same as safety. A poor-quality food may be safe such as stale cereal, overripe fruit or soured pasteurized milk. An unsafe food may have good quality in terms of appearance and taste, but have a high (unsafe) bacterial count. For example, improperly canned food may contain Clostridium botulinum (which causes botulism) thus making food unsafe. Or cooked chicken may be placed on a plate that held the raw chicken and become contaminated. The goal of home food storage is to provide both safe and high-quality foods.
Maintaining a food’s quality depends on several factors: the quality of the raw product, the procedures used during processing, the way the food is stored and the length of storage. For example, fresh-picked corn will store better than corn that has been in the market for a few days; a tightly folded inside cereal box liner will prevent a ready-to-eat cereal from becoming limp. The recommended storage time takes these factors into consideration.
Since bacteria frequently get into food through careless food handling, keep everything — hands, pantry, shelves and storage containers — clean.
To help assure quality, some products have “open dates” on the package. Product dating is optional on most products. Dates may also be “coded” by the manufacturer and only understood by them. The most commonly used open dates are:
- Sell-by Date — This is the last recommended day of sale. The date allows for home storage and use. You will find the date after the statement “sell by (a date).” Breads and baked goods may have “sell-by” dates.
- Best if Used By (or Before) – This date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase of safety date.
- Use-by Date — Tells how long the product will retain top quality after you buy it. You will find this date after the statement “Use by.” Some packaged goods have “use-by” dates.
- Expiration Date — This is the last day the product should be used or eaten. You may find this date after the statement, “Do not use after (date).” Yeast and baking powder have expiration dates.
- Pack Date — Canned or packaged foods may have pack dates, which tell you when the product was processed. This does not tell you how long the food will be good.
These are guidelines; if a food is not properly handled, its storage life will be shortened. Follow these tips for purchasing top-quality foods that have been handled safely.
- Look for packages of food that are not torn or broken.
- Canned goods should be free of dents, cracks and bulging lids.
- Refrigerated food should feel cold and frozen food should be frozen solid. Purchase these foods last when shopping.
- When shopping, place packaged raw meat, poultry and fish in plastic bags and keep from contact with other foods.
- Take perishable foods home quickly to refrigerate. If travel time will exceed one hour, pack fresh meats in a cooler with ice and keep in the passenger area of the car in warm weather.
- At home, refrigerate perishable food immediately. The “DANGER ZONE” for most food is 40 to 140 °F. Bacteria grow most rapidly in this range of temperatures, doubling in number in as little as 20 minutes.
For best results in maintaining product quality practice the rule, FIRST IN, FIRST OUT. This means you use the oldest products first and the newest products later. A good practice in the home is to place the newly purchased products in back of the same products already on the shelf. It may help to write purchase dates on products without “open dates” on the package. Follow recommended storage times for the refrigerator, freezer and pantry (see charts on following pages).
- Keep freezer temperature at or below 0 °F. A good indication of proper temperature is that ice cream will be frozen solid.
- Use moisture-proof, freezer-weight wrap. Examples are heavy duty foil, freezer bags and freezer paper. Label and date all packages.
- Food stored beyond the recommended time will be safe to eat, but eating quality (flavor and texture) and nutritive value will be reduced.
- Keep an inventory of freezer contents.
- Use a thermometer to check temperature; it must be between 34 °F and 40 °F at all times. Avoid frequently opening the refrigerator door, especially in hot weather.
- Wrapping perishable food prevents the loss of flavor and the mixing of flavor and odors resulting in, for example, onion-flavored milk.
- Raw meat and poultry should be wrapped securely so they do not leak and contaminate other foods. Place the store packages in a plastic bag or place the package on a plate to contain any juices. Clean up leaks with warm soapy water and sanitize with a solution of 1 teaspoon chlorine bleach to 1 quart water.
- Cooked meats and leftovers should be tightly wrapped to prevent leakage and drying out.
- Storage cabinets should be cool and dry. Storage areas near oven ranges, hot water pipes or heating ducts should not be used because heat and moisture can cause a food to lose its quality more rapidly.
- High temperature or humidity may reduce storage time considerably.
- Insect infestation can occur in any home. Susceptible foods include cereals, flour, seeds, baking mixes, spices, candy, dried fruits and dry pet foods. Avoid purchasing damaged packages of foods and keep cupboard shelves clean. Storing food in tightly sealed glass, metal or rigid plastic containers may help.
- Pantry foods will probably be safe beyond recommended storage time, but eating quality (flavor and texture) and nutritive value will be reduced.
Recommended Times for Refrigerator & Freezer Food Storage
|Fresh milk, fluid, whole or low-fat||1 week||*|
|Canned milk (opened)||3-5 days||*|
|Cottage and ricotta cheese||5-7 days||*|
|Cream cheese||2 weeks||*|
|Natural aged cheeses (cheddar, Swiss, mozzarella, etc.), large pieces||2-3 months||6-8 months|
|Ice cream||*||2 months|
|Fresh in shell||3-5 weeks||*|
|Beef roasts, steaks||2-4 days||6-12 months|
|Ground beef or stew||1-2 days||3-4 months|
|Pork roasts||2-4 days||4-8 months|
|Pork chops||2-4 days||4-6 months|
|Sausage (pork, beef, turkey)||1-2 days||1-2 months|
|Chicken or turkey, whole||1-2 days||12 months|
|Smoked sausage, whole ham (fully cooked)||7 days||1-2 months|
|Ham slices (fully cooked)||3-4 days||1-2 months|
|Hot dogs, luncheon meats (unopened)||2 weeks||1-2 months|
|Hot dogs (opened)||1 week||1-2 months|
|Luncheon meats (opened)||3-5 days||1-2 months|
|Cooked, leftover meat||3-4 days||2-3 months|
|Leftover gravy and meat broth||1-2 days||2-3 months|
|Cooked, leftover poultry||3-4 days||4-6 months|
|Canned fish, seafood, opened||3-4 days||*|
|Cooked fish||3-4 days||4-6 months|
|Crab||1-2 days||2 months|
|Fresh lean fish: cod, flounder, trout, haddock, halibut, pollack, perch||1-2 days||4-6 months|
|Fresh fatty fish: mullet, smelt, salmon, mackerel, bluefish, tuna, swordfish||1-2 days||2-3 months|
|Fresh water fish, cleaned||1-2 days||6-9 months*|
|Oysters, clams and scallops, freshly shucked||1-2 days||3-4 months|
|Shrimp||1-2 days||6-12 months|
|Apples||1-3 weeks||8-12 months|
|Apricots, cranberries||1 week||8-12 months|
|Avocados||3-5 days||4-6 months|
|Berries, cherries||1-2 days||8-12 months|
|Citrus fruits||3 weeks||4-6 months|
|Grapes, peaches, pears, plums||3-5 days||8-12 months|
|Beans, broccoli, celery, peppers||1 week||8-12 months|
|Beets, carrots, cabbage, turnips||1-2 weeks||8-12 months|
|Lettuce, other salad greens||1 week||*|
|Mushrooms, corn on the cob||1-2 days||8-12 months|
|Tomatoes, fresh, ripe||5-6 days||8-12 months|
|Chiffon pie, pumpkin pie||2-3 days||1-2 months|
|Fruit pie, baked||2-3 days||2-4 months|
|* Storage by this method is not recommended due to safety or quality issues.|
Recommended Times for Food Stored in Cool, Dry Pantry (65 to 70 °F)
|Food||Recommended Storage Time|
|Canned fruits, tomatoes, pickles||12-18 months|
|Canned meats and vegetables||2-5 years|
|Garlic||few weeks to few months|
|Home-canned foods||1 year|
|Onions, white, yellow and red||3-4 weeks|
|Onions, Vidalia and other sweet||1 ½ – 2 weeks|
|Potatoes, white||2 months or less. Do not store potatoes and onions together.|
|Potatoes, sweet, yams||1 week room temperature or 1 month at 55 – 60° F|
|Squash, acorn, butternut, winter||3 + months|
|Dry milk powder, regular||6-9 months|
|Dry milk powder, non-fat||12-28 months|
|Rice, white||1 year|
|Rice, brown||6 months|
|Shortening, vegetable||3 months|
|Sugar, brown||4 months|
|Sugar, granulated||2 years|
|Sugar, powdered||18 months|
|Vegetable oil||6 months|
|White flour||1 year|
|Whole wheat flour||refrigerate 6-8 months or freeze 2 years***|
|Baking mix (biscuit, cake, muffin)||9 months|
|Cereals, ready to eat||12 months|
|Dried apricots, prunes, raisins, etc.||6 months (refrigerate after opening)|
|Dried peas and beans||1 year|
|Herbs, Spices & Condiments*|
|Catsup, chili and cocktail sauces||1 year, unopened|
|Ground spices and herbs||6 months|
|Hot sauces||2-5 years|
|Mayonnaise||2-3 months, unopened|
|Whole spices||2 years|
|Vinegar||2 years unopened, 1 year opened|
|Beverages (sealed, unopened)*|
|Bottled water||2-5 years|
|Fruit juices – canned or bottled||1 year|
|Soft drinks, regular can||6-9 months|
|Soft drinks, diet can||3-4 months|
|Soft drinks, bottle||3 months|
|Chocolate, semi-sweet||2 years|
|Chocolate, unsweetened||18 months|
|Cocoa powder||1 year|
|Coffee (canned)||2 years|
|Nuts (unshelled)||6 months|
|Peanut butter||6 months, unopened; 3-4 months, opened|
|Tea bags||18 months|
|Bread & Cakes**||Use within 3-7 days or freeze.|
|*These foods should be stored in the pantry in tightly sealed or airtight containers.
**Store breads and cakes at room temperature. Storing in the refrigerator promotes staling.*** Pantry storage not recommended
Originally published 02/99