Food Safety: Do You Use the Smell Test?

A recent discussion at my day job about the “smell test” for milk inspired me to do a little research into the confusing world of food sell-by dates. While I was aware of the somewhat soft nature of sell-by and use-by dates, I was surprised to learn that with the exception of baby food, there aren’t any federal regulations about the dates that go on our food. There are some state-level regulations, but not many.

These dates also don’t refer to the safety of the food they’re referring to; it’s usually more of a marketing move by the manufacturer to indicate optimum taste and quality of the products. That’s why you’ll often see terms like “best by” or “for guaranteed freshness”¦” before the date. They aren’t saying the food is dangerous after that date; just that they think it may get stale or lose some flavor.

I used to work at National Food-Related Nonprofit and heard my share of hand-wringing over food safety. Basically, the long road that our food takes to get to our plates corresponds with a large number of people that can make the wrong decision about our food. The dates on packaging became necessary in the mid-20th century when that road got longer and more convoluted, and Americans were for the first time no longer dealing with whole foods, but processed food products that made it difficult to make a quick evaluation of freshness.

As always, though, the buck stops with the consumer. The farmer milked the cow, some frightening place did unholy things to the milk, the distributor packaged it and got it to your grocery store, and now it’s in your fridge. You’re the gatekeeper: the last person that gets to decide whether or not the milk is good for you and your family/roommates/couch-crashers. It’s a big responsibility, to be sure, and perhaps that’s why a lot of people just go with the date on the carton. It absolves the individual of the responsibility of deciding for themselves if the milk is OK to drink.

Woman sniffs a melon for freshness
This lady knows what's up

Do you do use the smell test? I universally, reflexively give milk a little sniff before I pour it in my coffee. This habit was actually borne not out of a sense of responsibility, but of a bad experience with milk in my cereal when I was a kid. My mom, perfect Martha Stewart Mom that she was, must have been a little busy or tired one morning when she poured some past-its-prime-milk into her dear daughter’s cereal. That early trauma started what’s become a lifelong habit.

But some people never get to the smell test stage because they’ll throw away any food product that has an expired date on it. While this isn’t inherently a bad practice, it is a little simplistic and it leads to throwing out and wasting food that could be perfectly safe. The truth is, it’s a hard-wired survival instinct for humans, like all animals, to judge whether food is safe to consume. I’m not saying our intuitions are always right; just that we have a pretty strong vested interest in, you know, surviving.

Especially having learned that the dates on food are a lot vaguer than I’d believed, I feel more empowered than ever to make my own judgment call about whether or not my food is fresh. So, you can use the dates on your packaging as a guide, but go with your gut. Or, rather, your five senses. Does the food look and smell appetizing? Is anything weird going on that’s making you hesitate to eat it? If so, then throw it out. But if everything looks fine, except for the ambiguous date on the package, you may want to consider trusting your instincts.

Images: Getty

32 thoughts on “Food Safety: Do You Use the Smell Test?”

  1. I always do the sniff test, and I also do the egg float test. I don’t go through milk and eggs very quickly so I’d throw away a ton of stuff if I went by the dates (I still end up throwing stuff away sometimes anyway although I try to be careful and usually buy the teeny single serving milk bottles when I’m cooking something with milk in it). Sometimes I use milk and eggs a lot in a short period and feel very good about buying proper amounts of things and using them all up. And then I’ll go for a while and want coffee or something, and find my milk is three weeks past the date and sour. It’s sad.

  2. I always sniff my milk and most dairy products in general. Just the other day I opened a new carton of milk and it was already spoiled. If I didn’t notice the slight seperation and the take a whiff it would have ruined my tea and ultimately my morning

  3. We go through milk too fast in our place to worry about the smell, and in the grand tradition of over-scheduled families, we buy our meat already frozen.

    I will say that I am SCARED to do a sniff test. I hate smelly things with burning firey passion. I will throw things away if there’s even chance I might get a whiff of horribleness.

  4. I do the personal smell test plus one other person, then we confer on the smell of the milk if it is in question (at least 5 days past the sell by date). Although…my roommate has terrible asthma and often has a stuffy nose…so most times we take a closer look at the consistency of the milk. It’s Science!

  5. I used to be weird about food expiration dates, but my current apartment’s refrigerator doesn’t have any setting other than “damn close to being a freezer.” I feel like nothing will ever go bad in there. Now I just have to smell and visually analyze everything. Or, better yet, only keep as much food in the house as I can consume before it expires.

  6. I do pay attention to dates on milk for two reasons: I’m lactose intolerant and it’s very hard to find fresh lactose free milk in grocery stores, and because I had an expired milk incident as a child (pre-lactose intolerance). After many bad fridge experiences with my ex-boyfriend who would buy healthy food, eat junk food instead, let the healthy food rot and blame everything on me, I try to be very vigilant about leftovers. I’m very allergic to mold, so I toss anything that has a speck of mold on it. If there’s no mold on it I do the smell test and reheat to a temperature that will kill any nasty bacteria. Obviously you should use your best judgement, so if something is past its expiration date and you feel comfortable eating it go for it!

  7. I’m a big fan of the 50% pink ticket items at the grocery store, and I treat best before dates as rough suggestions.

    So, yes, I definitely use the smell test! It gets combined with the look test (puffy container lids are not a good sign), the feel test (deli meats with a slimy feel get tossed regardless if it passes look and smell), and the elusive I’m-going-to-ignore-all-these-and-err-on-the-side-of-caution test. That last one is reserved for items I am going to be feeding to guests.

    I’m also with @lostinmybox, cut around mold or bad stuff if you can.

    (It bears stating that I’ve never given myself or anyone else food poisoning.)

  8. I was a bartender for four years right after high school. After I mixed a cocktail for a customer, before I poured it into the glass, I would give it a little whiff to make sure I didn’t need to add more of anything. That habit evolved over time, and now I smell everything. Books, rubber gloves, new shoes, photographs, fresh packs of cigarettes — EVERYTHING. So, yes; I am a big fan of the smell test.

  9. I’ve been taught in my family that even when there’s mold, you just cut around it and get to the good stuff. I was somewhat stressful when I started working at a cafe in college and we had to throw out everything the day it expired to avoid any problems with customers.

  10. I do sniff something before I eat it. If I just bought it, I don’t bother; if milk is past its expiration date, I will sniff it. I have had milk last a week after the date on it, and I’ve had it smell like paint thinner two days before the expiration date. If it smells iffy, I will give it a little taste, but if the smell matches the taste, I am not eating it. I was a little disappointed in myself yesterday when I went to make tofu scrambler and my tofu smelled bad, like toxic bad.

    I take a lot of chances with leftovers. In my experience if there are leftovers in the fridge, they can last quite a while if they are undisturbed. If I open the container every day to get a little out, it will go bad more quickly than if I leave it alone for two weeks and take it out. I’ve also been known to scrape mold off the top of particularly good chili. Sad, but true. If they smell like they’re starting to turn, it’s time to ditch the leftovers and feel guilty for wasting food.

    The way I prefer to shop now has led me to big reduction in waste. I have a few recipes I know I can make at anytime as long as I have a few ingredients sitting around, so I keep onions, garlic, tofu, and eggs well-stocked in my fridge, and pasta, sauce, and some sort of grain are always sitting in my cabinet. I also keep butter, sugar, and flour on hand for when I might need to bake something. People always appreciate a made-from-scratch fresh cookie or brownie, and they’re no more complicated than the boxes of mix. Everything else is decided in advance, and I keep a few frozen things around for when I’m feeling particularly lazy. I try to do two or three big recipes a week, and that is where most of my ingredients go. I think this has helped me avoid waste because I do feel guilty when something isn’t used so I plan to use everything, and it also keeps me from dawdling in the grocery store pondering what I should be eating for the next few days.

  11. I always ignore the expiration date on eggs. Alton Brown said I could. His point being that as long as they were refrigerated, the egg shell is a perfect little preservation container and that while older eggs wouldn’t, say, be fantastic for a perfect meringue, they’d make perfectly acceptable scrambled eggs.

    I throw away far far fewer eggs now. Which means I can justify buying the fancy,expensive cage-free kind.

    Take that, large factory egg farm conglomerate.

      1. I think probably the most reliable way of testing egg freshness is putting it in a glass of water. If it sinks, it’s completely fresh. If it stands on end, or starts to float a bit, you should probably use it soon (this kind is best for boiling!). If it outright floats, throw it out. There’s a whole scientific explanation having to do with gas produced inside the shell blah blah blah, but if you’re interested, you’ll have to Google it yourselves ;)

  12. some frightening place did unholy things to the milk Unholy things like raised the temperature to kill bacteria? I grew up in rural MN, one of my best friends from high school was a dairy princess, and you still could not pay me to drink raw milk, even as an adult. That shit is dangerous. I always stick to the dates on milk because I also fear accidentally consuming expired milk. I’m also really careful with the dates on eggs.

    With processed stuff for myself I could care less. I have consumer so much “expired” Diet coke, although I would hesitate to serve it to friends, but maybe I’m just paranoid. Ditto to “expired” boxes of mac and cheese.

    1. It’s funny you should say eggs, because I was always under the impression you can eat them well past their expiry date. There’s a test I learned to see if they’re good – If you put them in water, and they sink, they’re still good. If they float, they’re bad – it’s a test that has never failed me, and I eat eggs beyond their expiry date.

      Maybe I’m doing it wrong!

  13. I ignore best before dates on milk, because the point at which milk spoils is really variable. Sometimes milk goes bad before the date if it was left out too long or something, sometimes it stay perfect a week after the best buy date.

    I don’t do smell test, because my sense of smell is terrible. I do a taste and swallow (if good), spit (if bad) test. I do that with pretty much everything. If it looks good, I smell it. If it smells good (or I can’t smell anything), I taste it. If it tastes good, I’ll eat it!

  14. I use the “smell test” for everything! I think I learned it from my dad, who is hyper-aware of food safety. Probably because my mom has trouble throwing anything away and he has seen his share of mold covered leftovers in the fridge. He used to make us look at the mold covered food before he threw it away!

    I usually toss anything I’m even the slightest bit suspicious of like you mentioned…maybe I do it too much, but I’ll blame it on my childhood.

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