Laura Vryhof/Demand Media

Comedy writers know they can always get a cheap laugh by having a male character sniff at a piece of clothing, shrug and say, "it'll do." There's an element of truth in that picture, especially when it comes to T-shirts you didn't wear for long, but it doesn't extend to food. If you've got a piece of chicken in your fridge that's a bit whiffy, "when in doubt, throw it out" is a good rule. If the only problem is that it's past its sell-by date, that's a different story.

It's Not an Expiration Date

The whole issue of dating on food is confusing for a lot of people, especially when it comes to fresh meats and other highly perishable grocery items. The first thing you need to understand, and this is really important, is that the date on your meat isn't there to say, "It's too late now, fool, throw me out or suffer the consequences!"

Food dating is a voluntary thing that producers and retailers do. Sometimes that date is there for the store's own convenience to say how long a product should be set out for sale. Sometimes it's an indication of quality, a reminder that the product will be at its best for only a few days and should be used quickly.

It's very rarely a "dispose-by" date or expiration date. The USDA itself estimates that up to 30 percent of the food produced in the United States each year goes to waste, and a lot of that is from people misunderstanding food dating and discarding perfectly good food.

Sell-By Date on Meat

There are three different phrases you'll commonly see on meats. A "use-by" date is the producer's best guess as to how long your food will be at its best. That's usually conservative because the producer legitimately wants you to taste the product when it's as good as it can be. A variation on that phrasing is "best if used before," which has much the same meaning. A "sell-by" date is for the store's own use, so the staff at the meat counter knows when to mark down a package or remove it from the display.

A chicken sell-by date, then, is just a reminder for the store staff. It doesn't tell you whether the chicken is still at its best, let alone whether you need to throw it out.

Refrigerator Life of Chicken

Uncooked chicken has about a two-day refrigerator life, so it's the kind of thing you should plan to use or freeze right away once you've bought it. Raw chicken in the fridge for seven days is something you probably won't even want to smell, let alone eat.

The packaging date from your store can at least give you some guidance in that direction. If the chicken's use-by date is today, you'll probably only want to keep it one more day at most. If it's dated for later than today, you can keep it safely for up to two days. Remember, the nasty bugs that can make you sick – salmonella, Yersinia, E. coli, and all their kin – won't make the chicken smell or taste bad. You won't know they're there until your belly gives you the bad news.

Stretching Your Storage Life

There are a couple of simple ways to stretch the shelf life of your chicken. If your meal plans change, one option is just to cook the chicken anyway and refrigerate it. Cooked chicken will keep for three or four days in the refrigerator, so you'll have plenty of time to use it in another meal. You can also freeze your chicken in its original packaging or good-quality freezer bags.

It'll keep for months in the freezer, especially if you use a vacuum sealer to extract all the air from the bag. Chicken gets freezer-burnt wherever it's exposed to air, so extracting the air means that you can keep it longer. Depending on the quality of the bags you've used, vacuum-sealed chicken might keep perfectly for a year or two.

Keep Cold Food Cold

Of course, all of these recommendations are based on the idea that your chicken has been kept cold at every step of the way. The package should feel cold when you buy it, and you should get it home into your refrigerator as soon as possible. If it's summertime, or if you live in a hot climate, use an insulated bag or picnic cooler to keep your food cold on the way home.

Also, it's never a bad idea to check the temperature of your fridge and make sure it's at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below. If it's running a bit warm, your food will spoil much more quickly.

About the Author

Fred Decker

Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.