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Can Expired Frozen Food Make You Sick?

Found expired frozen food in the freezer and not sure if it’s safe to eat? Here’s everything you need to know.

You were cleaning out your freezer and came across an old steak or TV dinner hidden in the back. It looks fine, but it’s past its expiration, best-by, or sell-by date.

Like anyone else, it left you scratching your head, wondering, “Should I eat this, or could eating it make me sick and kill me?”

Playing it safe, you pulled the phone from your pocket and searched for answers online. After sifting through a bunch of unclear—and frankly confusing—articles, you found your way here.

Welcome, and know that you’ve come to the right place! We’ve written this guide, backed by expert advice on food safety, to help you decide what to do next.

Can You Eat Out of Date Food From the Freezer?

In a word, yes.

If the food was safe to eat before you froze it and your freezer maintains the right temperature, it will technically stay safe to eat forever as long as it stays frozen.

If the food was safe when you froze it, you can safely eat it past the expiry date.

In a consumer update on storing food safely, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration notes that frozen food will be safe to eat indefinitely as long as it’s been properly handled and stored in the freezer at 0°F (-18°C).

Here’s why you probably wouldn’t want to keep food in the freezer indefinitely: Yes, food that was handled properly and was safe to eat when frozen will remain safe to eat indefinitely. But over time, frozen food can dry out and get freezer burn—losing its best smell, taste, and mouthfeel.

So aim to use up frozen foods within a few months to a year. While they’ll still be safe to eat after that, they won’t taste as good, which defeats the purpose of freezing them in the first place.

If you’re unsure what “properly handled” entails, don’t worry. I’m a Level 2 Certified Food Handler—Level 1 is for food delivery, and Level 2 is a requirement for working in a restaurant kitchen—and I’m going to help you figure out exactly what this term means.

Why Not All Frozen Food Is Safe to Eat

In short, if you left food out at room temperature for too long or kept it in the fridge beyond its safe period, you shouldn’t freeze it. As a matter of fact, the only safe thing left to do is to toss it.

Properly handling your food boils down to picking up meats and frozen items last when you’re in the supermarket, getting them home quickly, storing them in the fridge or freezer right after you take them out of the shopping bags, and not letting them sit out or stay in the fridge longer than they should.

The only exception is shelf-stable foods like dried or canned goods. However, once they’re cooked or opened, they abide by the same rules.

This leads to a few basic guidelines for ensuring food safety when freezing and thawing food.

If the food was left out at room temperature for more than 1-2 hours before you put it in the freezer, the only safe thing to do is discard it.

Bacteria thrive at room temperature. If you leave perishable food out for too long, it can turn into a hotbed for harmful pathogens within in a matter of hours.

Raw meats, cut fruits and vegetables, and leftover cooked food shouldn’t be left to sit out for more than 1-2 hours, or they may become overgrown with disease-causing bacteria and no longer be safe to eat.1United States Department of Agriculture (n.d.). What is the “2 Hour Rule” with leaving food out? AskUSDA. Retrieved August 17, 2023, from https://ask.usda.gov/s/article/What-is-the-2-Hour-Rule-with-leaving-food-out

Freezing doesn’t kill harmful bacteria; it merely puts them into a sort of hibernation that lasts as long as the food is kept frozen at 0°F (-18°C). This means that if you leave food out for too long and then freeze it, it can still make you sick.2United States Department of Agriculture (2013, June 15). Freezing and Food Safety. Food Safety & Inspection Service. Retrieved August 17, 2023, from https://www.fsis.usda.gov/food-safety/safe-food-handling-and-preparation/food-safety-basics/freezing-and-food-safety

If the food was stored in the fridge for more than it should have before you moved it to the freezer, it’s probably not safe to eat.

Refrigeration simply slows down bacterial growth in food. So, while it extends the food’s shelf life, it doesn’t make it last forever.3University of Minnesota (n.d.). Refrigerator tips to keep your family safe and your food fresh. University of Minnesota Extension. Retrieved August 17, 2023, from https://extension.umn.edu/preserving-and-preparing/refrigerator-tips-keep-your-family-safe-and-your-food-fresh

Leave food in the fridge for longer than recommended, and it can become unsafe to eat. If you then freeze it, it will still contain all the bacteria and toxins that were present when it was put in the freezer.

Just how long is too long?

Typically, raw meats last about 1-2 days in the fridge, while cooked foods can last 3-4 days. If you’ve kept a food item longer than these time frames, it’s not a good idea to freeze it; it may not be safe to eat, and you should throw it away.4United States Department of Agriculture (n.d.). How long can I keep meat in the refrigerator? AskUSDA. Retrieved August 17, 2023, from https://ask.usda.gov/s/article/How-long-can-I-keep-meat-in-the-refrigerator5United States Department of Agriculture (2020, July 31). Leftovers and Food Safety. Food Safety and Inspection Service. Retrieved August 17, 2023, from https://www.fsis.usda.gov/food-safety/safe-food-handling-and-preparation/food-safety-basics/leftovers-and-food-safety

If your freezer isn’t working as it should, the food in it may make you sick.

To store your food safely, your freezer must consistently stay at 0°F (-18°C). Even though the temperature might rise slightly every time you open the door, the freezer should be able to quickly return to the right temperature once the door is closed.

If you get frequent power outages where you live or your freezer isn’t functioning correctly and can’t keep a consistent temperature, the food stored inside might not be completely safe to eat and could cause food poisoning.

How I Store Food in My Freezer

They say a personal example is worth more than a thousand words of explanation, so let me share how I store food in my own freezer.

My wife and I buy our bread, meat, and produce in bulk because the items we eat and use for cooking and eating are often sold at a discount.

What we can use within a few days, we refrigerate. Anything we can’t eat or cook within that time gets frozen. For some foods, we freeze them raw; others, we cool, chill in ice water, and then freezer for thawable weeknight meals.

Once a food item goes into the freezer, its expiration, best-by, or sell-by date no longer applies. Instead, we mark the freezer bag or storage container with the date we froze it and aim to use the item within a few months. (Do not forget that frozen food stays safe to eat, but its best quality declines over time.)

We try to do a freezer clean-out every six months: once in the summer and once during the winter holiday season. We always reach for the food in the back and lower sections of the compartments first because they’re typically the oldest.

I’m not saying you should follow our exact approach, but I can tell you that this system has served us exceptionally well over a decade of marriage.

The Bottom Line

Frozen food kept at 0°F (-18°C) will stay safe to eat indefinitely. But its best smell, taste, and mouthfeel will only last for so long before it dries out and gets freezer burn.

Make sure your food is safe to eat before freezing it and that your freezer’s working properly, and you should be good to go. Label your foods with the date of freezing and try to use them within a few months to a year for best quality.

Know your author

Written by

Dim is a food writer, cookbook author, and the editor of Home Cook World. His first book, Cooking Methods & Techniques, was published in 2022. He is a certified food handler with Level 1 and Level 2 Certificates in Food Hygiene and Safety for Catering, and a trained cook with a Level 3 Professional Chef Diploma.