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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Food

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Surplus, Salvaged, and Donated Foods: Safety Tips

No matter the source, safety tips are the same for any foods you choose

Some foods that grocery stores, restaurants, and other retailers weren’t able to sell are donated to charity – for example, when a product’s “sell-by” date has passed or a can’s label is torn or missing.  Food manufacturers also may donate or sell some products that are near or past the expiration date.  Some of these various foods also may end up being sold, at discount prices, in surplus grocery stores, food-salvage stores, or other bargain outlets.

An expired sell-by date, for example, doesn’t necessarily mean that a food has gone bad or is unsafe.  Surplus and other bargain stores often keep good food from being wasted and provide nutrition at a good price – when the food has been handled safely. 

But when food hasn’t been handled safely, as when canned foods are badly dented or damaged by rough handling, bacteria may grow that can cause illness.
  

Here's what you can do...

If you’re thinking about buying food from a surplus or salvage store, or other type of bargain store, follow the safety tips you would follow when buying food anywhere. 

  • Never buy any can of food that looks swollen or has a bulge in it.  This may mean that dangerous bacteria are growing inside.
  • Don’t buy any can that’s dented along the seams that run along the top or side.  The damage may have allowed bacteria to get inside.
  • For the same reason, don’t buy any sealed package that’s torn, has a hole in it, or is coming apart at the seams.
  • Don’t buy any can or package that’s leaking.  If liquid can drip out, bacteria can get in.
  • If a can has rust along the seams, don’t buy it.
  • Don’t buy any food in a package that appears to have been resealed or repaired in any way. Food should be sold only in the original, intact package.  (It’s especially important to keep this advice in mind when dealing with food-salvage operations, which sometimes change the labels on foods, or repack or reprocess them.)
  • Food that has to be refrigerated should be kept at 41° F. or lower, to keep bacteria from growing.  Avoid buying refrigerated food kept at higher temperatures.  Ask the store manager about the food temperatures in refrigerated display cases, and look for thermometers in refrigerator cases.
  • Don’t buy refrigerated foods that are past the “use-by” or “sell-by” dates, because these foods may be perishable and may have begun to spoil.  
  • Frozen foods should be kept at 32° F. or lower.  Avoid buying frozen food kept at higher temperatures.
  • Don’t buy frozen foods whose packages show that the food inside may have melted, then frozen again. For example, in cardboard-carton type packages, food stains on the package or other signs that the package has leaked are evidence that this may have happened. Frozen food that is thawed, then frozen again, gives bacteria a chance to grow.
  • Food that has gone bad often looks and smells normal, so we often have to rely on other ways of knowing if it may be unsafe; for example, if the seams of a package or can are open or if a package hasn’t been properly refrigerated.  But when fresh or prepared food does look or smell bad, you don’t have to rely on those other clues; it means that, yes, the food is spoiled and may have harmful bacteria growing in it.  Don’t buy it.
  • Ask the store manager if the labels on cans or packages have been changed.  If so, the new label might not list the right ingredients or lot numbers.  This is especially important if you have a food allergy or other dietary restriction or if a food has been recalled.
     

When you’re in the store, notice whether or not it looks clean and look for evidence of bugs and rodents.  Bacteria can grow in dirt and even on surfaces that look clean, but haven’t been properly sanitized.  A store that looks clean isn’t a guarantee that it is – but if a store doesn’t look or smell clean, it might be a clue about the store’s food-handling practices.

Check with your state or local health department if you have concerns about a store that stocks surplus or salvaged foods.  These health departments may be able to tell you if a store has been found to violate safe food-handling and storage practices. Some state and local health departments post food-store inspection reports on their websites.

Handling your food safely after you buy it is just as important as buying food that has been handled safely by the store.  For more tips about how you can handle food safely, visit FDA's Food Safety Facts for Consumers.