A very interesting article y Keith Frederick of the Altoona Mirror:
Not all pantry foods will last the same length of time

The aluminum can is possibly the scariest thing in your kitchen. You don’t know when you bought it. There’s no “sell by” or “use by” date stamped on it. And now it’s starting to bulge.

What do you do?

“The best rule to keep in mind is ‘When in doubt, throw it out.’ It’s always best to err on the side of caution,” says Beth Lutton, a registered dietitian and the food production manager at Altoona Regional Health System.

Still good?

Listed are some common, nonperishable foods and their average shelf life, according to Karen Buch, corporate dietitian at Weis Markets. (Lengths are assuming the food is stored unopened at room temperature.)

Raw potatoes: one to two months

Canned goods, low acid (such as poultry, fish, gravy and soup): two to five years

Canned goods, high acid (such as juices, fruit, pickles and tomato soup): 12 to 18 months

Cereal (ready to eat): six to 12 months

Cake, brownie or bread mixes: 12 to 18 months

Flour (white): six to 12 months

Flour (whole-wheat): one month

Ketchup, barbecue sauce or cocktail sauce (bottled): 12 months

Mayonnaise (bottled): two to three months

Packaged cookies: two months

Crackers: eight months

Peanut butter: six to nine months

Rice (white or wild): two years

Olive or vegetable oil: six months

Tea bags: 18 months

We’ve all done it: left a can of vegetables or a box of cereal in our cabinet for too long because we were either lazy or forgetful or just plain didn’t care.

But how long should you keep that mysteriously-aged food, and how do you know whether or not it’s still good to eat?

According to Karen Buch, corporate dietitian at Sunbury-based Weis Markets, the dates generally printed on products are a good place to start. But, she cautions, “don’t mistakenly assume that all dates listed refer to the product’s expiration.”

According to Buch, the most common dating systems are:

“Sell By” — This is the last date a store displays an item. A product should be purchased before this date.

“Best if Used By” — This is the date recommended for a product’s best quality or flavor. It is not a purchase or safety date.

“Use By” — This one is the closest thing to an expiration date. It’s the last date recommended for the use of the product at its top quality.

“We always encourage people to use good judgment, in addition to those dates,” Buch says. “If for any reason they suspect something is (too old) to use, just use good judgment. (Using) the dating system and visual cues, people can do their best to keep their family safe.”

Those visual cues are important. For example, that bulging of the can at the back of the pantry or cupboard is probably caused by botulism.

“(Botulism) is a very serious food-borne illness,” Lutton says. “There are several types of food-borne illnesses.”

Food-borne illnesses — which include salmonella, E. coli, hepatitis A and listeria — come from spoiled, expired or damaged products being served. And, Lutton says, it isn’t always the food you would expect.

“When people suffer some gastrointestinal symptom, they often think it’s (from) the last thing they ate,” she explains. “But incubation times for some of these things are up to two weeks. A lot of times, food-borne illness is an under-reported thing. It can get passed off as the flu.”

Symptoms of food-borne illnesses include nausea, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, headache and fatigue. The problems are especially dangerous for those with weak immune systems, Lutton says, including the very young, the elderly and the sick.

Avoiding food-borne illnesses can be as simple as not purchasing products in damaged packaging, such as dented or damaged canned goods. According to Marc Mckillop, store director of Giant Eagle in Altoona, Giant Eagle has several quality checkpoints as the products are transported to the store, which should eliminate damaged packages from reaching the shelves.

But if one does make it through, avoid it. The seal protecting the food could be broken, opening the door to the possibility of contamination.

One way to prevent keeping foods on the pantry shelves too long is to practice the “first in, first out” policy.

“When we say ‘first in, first out,’ it means as you make food purchases, you’re rotating your foods,” Buch says. “If you’re putting food in the pantry, make sure you put it behind an older purchase.”

That way the items in front are the first ones used.

In the end, the “when in doubt, throw it out” philosophy is one to live by.

“(But) a lot of people have a hard time with that, because they don’t want to waste,” Lutton says.

Nonetheless, it’s probably time for that bulging can to hit the road.