When it comes to food safety, chicken often gets a bad rap. Whether you agree with that statement or not, poultry comes under fire from salmonella scares and seems to draw more scrutiny than other meats – and all for good reason. Expiration dates don't necessarily spell certain doom for chicken, however; if only two days have passed, your senses likely serve as the most reliable safety test.
All About Expiration
While you should never downplay the risks of eating spoiled meat, the reputation of expiration dates paints a scarier picture than the truth. In reality, there's no national system for dating food in the U.S. Additionally, chicken doesn't instantly turn bad the day of the sell-by date. A sell-by date is a recommendation for when the retailer should remove the product from its shelves, and isn't necessarily an indication of how long the product will be safe for. As a general rule of thumb, poultry typically lasts a day or two past the sell-by date, but should be eaten on or before its use-by date for optimal safety.
Trust Your Senses
The relative looseness of expiration dates aside, always err on the side of caution when it comes to your safety and the safety of your family. If you're a day or two past the date or otherwise unsure about the freshness of your chicken, turn to your senses. Although slight changes in color are normal – particularly darkening or fading – throw away chicken that smells foul, rancid, sulfurous or otherwise "off," as this is an indication that it has spoiled. Likewise, if your chicken feels slimy, sticky or tacky to the touch, throw it out. If anything doesn't seem right, it's best to throw the chicken in the trash. Chicken can smell, look and taste okay but still make you sick, so it's important to always store it correctly.
Pack Your Poultry
To ensure maximum safety and freshness, store your chicken in individual plastic freezer-safe zip-top bags, and minimize the air in the chicken's wrapping. Store it in the fridge at 35 to 40 F or in the freezer at 0 F. Store whole fresh chicken or fresh chicken pieces in the fridge for only one or two days. Chicken pieces will last around nine months in the freezer, while a whole chicken will retain its quality for up to a year in the freezer.
More to Consider
Regardless of the expiration date, some practices greatly increase the risk of unsafe chicken. Never eat chicken that has been left out of the refrigerator for more than two hours, or one hour in temperatures above 90 F because room temperatures allow bacteria to multiply quickly. Once you've cooked your chicken, use a meat thermometer to ensure the chicken's internal temperature is at least 165 F.
With a diverse professional background and a decade of experience as a freelance writer, Dan has contributed lifestyle content -- from fashion to travel to fitness and more -- to publishers including Chron, Fortune, Sony, GlobalPost, ModernMom, Moviefone, Salon.com, Techwalla and dozens of others.