Chicken is one of the most commonly consumed meats worldwide. It’s versatile, nutritious, and relatively inexpensive. However, raw chicken is also highly perishable and prone to bacterial growth if not handled properly. This makes it crucial to understand how long is chicken good after the sell by date, how to determine if chicken is still safe to cook and eat after the sell by date has passed.
Understanding Dates on Chicken Packaging
Raw chicken sold at grocery stores typically contains one of three types of dates on the packaging:
- Sell by date – This date tells the store how long the manufacturer recommends selling the chicken. It serves as a guide for inventory management rather than an indication of how long the chicken is safe to consume.
- Use by date – This is the last date recommended for use of the chicken while it’s at peak quality. The chicken may still be safe to cook and eat for a short time after this date.
- Expiration date – This is the last date recommended for consumption of the chicken. At this point, the chicken is no longer considered wholesome or of acceptable quality.
Sell by and use by dates are not expiration dates or food safety dates. Fresh, properly handled chicken will usually remain safe to cook and consume for 1-2 days past the sell by date and 3-5 days past the use by date. However, always rely on sensory signs like smell and appearance rather than just the date alone to determine if chicken should be consumed.
Selecting Fresh Chicken at the Store
When shopping for chicken, check the sell by date on the package and select the package with the latest date. Also check for signs of freshness:
- Packaging should be well sealed with no rips, tears, or leaking liquid. Avoid chicken with soaking wet packaging.
- Meat should have a pinkish color without any grayish, greenish, or brownish discoloration.
- There should be no off odors. Fresh chicken has a mild odor.
- Organic, free-range, and air-chilled chicken often has a longer shelf life than conventionally raised chicken. Opt for these if eating chicken a few days past the sell by date.
- Chicken parts like breasts and thighs generally stay fresh slightly longer than a whole chicken.
Closely inspecting the chicken can help you determine if it’s still fresh right at the sell by date or if it’s already past its prime.
How Long Is Chicken Good After The Sell By Date?
|Safe Consumption Window After Sell-By Date
|Maximum Storage Time Before Cooking
|Chicken Consumption After Sell-By Date
|Proper Storage Required (40°F or below)
|40°F or below
|Chicken Spoilage Indicators
|Off odor, slimy texture, discolored appearance
|Alternative Storage Option
|Freezing for Extended Shelf Life
|Up to 9 months for raw chicken pieces, 1 year for whole or turkey
|Frozen Chicken Consumption
|Safe Thaw Methods
|Refrigerator, cold running water, undercook until internal temperature reaches 165°F
- Cooking chicken to an internal temperature of 165°F ensures safe consumption, regardless of storage time.
- Ground chicken has a shorter shelf life due to increased surface area and should be consumed within 1-2 days or frozen.
- Cooked chicken stored in the fridge is safe for 3-4 days before needing to be discarded or frozen.
Safe Storage and Shelf Life of Raw Chicken
To maximize the shelf life of raw chicken after purchase:
- Refrigerate chicken in the coldest part of the refrigerator (40°F or below), not the door.
- Place chicken on a tray or in a container to prevent juices from dripping onto other foods.
- Use chicken by the sell by date for peak quality. Use within 1-2 days beyond this for safety.
- Freeze raw chicken if you can’t use it within a couple days of the sell by date.
How long is chicken good after the sell by date depends on several factors:
- Type of chicken – Whole chickens retain freshness longer than chicken parts. Chicken legs and thighs last longer than breasts.
- Package date – Chicken packaged several days before the sell by date will have a shorter usable lifespan than chicken packaged a day or two before.
- Proper temperature – Chicken continuously held at 40°F or below will last longer than chicken left in the danger zone above 40°F.
- Exposure to air – Chicken in a vacuum sealed package lasts longer than chicken exposed to air.
Under ideal refrigerator conditions, raw chicken should retain acceptable quality for 1-2 days past the sell by date. After this point, rely on other freshness indicators.
Identifying Spoiled Chicken
Check for these signs of spoilage before cooking or consuming raw chicken:
- Slimy texture – Chicken naturally has a smooth, moist texture. A slippery, mucus-like feel indicates spoilage.
- Dull, grayish color – As chicken ages, the flesh changes from pink and plump to dulled and grayish.
- Off odors – Raw chicken has a mild odor. Rancid, ammonia-like, or rotten smells mean spoilage.
- Discoloration – Brown or greenish tints indicate the growth of bacteria and fungi.
- Dry, sticky surface – The flesh dries out and becomes sticky as chicken deteriorates.
Trust your senses. If the chicken shows even slight signs of spoilage, it’s safest to discard it. Don’t taste chicken to determine if it’s gone bad.
Freezing Chicken to Extend Shelf Life
Freezing is an effective way to safely prolong the shelf life of raw chicken:
- For best quality, freeze chicken before the sell by date. Chicken can be safely frozen up to 2 weeks after the sell by date.
- Package chicken in air-tight freezer bags, freezer paper, or containers. Exclude excess air.
- Divide larger packages into smaller portions so chicken freezes quickly.
- Label packages with contents and freeze-by date. Freeze chicken for no more than 9-12 months.
- Freeze immediately at 0°F or below. Do not allow chicken to linger at room temperature before freezing.
Freezing puts bacteria dormant, stopping spoilage so chicken stays fresh longer.
Safe Thawing of Frozen Chicken
Always thaw frozen chicken properly before cooking:
- Thaw in the refrigerator, allowing 1 day for every 5 pounds. Place chicken on a tray to catch drips.
- Submerge a vacuum sealed package in cold water, changing water every 30 minutes. Cook chicken immediately after thawing.
- Use the defrost setting on a microwave, then cook chicken immediately.
- Avoid thawing at room temperature. Bacteria multiply quickly in the danger zone between 40-140°F.
- Do not refreeze chicken after it’s been thawed unless it’s been cooked.
Proper thawing slows bacteria growth and reduces food safety risks. Follow safe handling practices when raw chicken is thawed.
Handling and Cooking Chicken Safely
- Wash hands before and after handling raw chicken. Avoid cross-contamination by keeping chicken separate from ready-to-eat foods.
- Use separate cutting boards and utensils for raw chicken versus other foods. Never place cooked chicken or meat on a plate or cutting board that held raw chicken.
- Cook chicken thoroughly until it reaches an internal temperature of 165°F. Check temperature with a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part.
- When microwaving chicken, rotate frequently and allow standing time to allow heat to fully penetrate and cook through.
- Marinate chicken in the refrigerator, not on the counter. Discard used marinade which contains raw chicken juices.
Proper cooking kills any bacteria present in or on the chicken to make it safe to eat.
Storing and Reheating Cooked Chicken Safely
- Store cooked chicken in shallow, covered containers to allow rapid cooling in the refrigerator. Throw away chicken left out longer than 2 hours (1 hour if temperatures are above 90°F).
- For best quality and food safety, use cooked chicken within 3-4 days. Freeze for longer storage.
- When reheating cooked chicken, reheat thoroughly until 165°F. Bring sauces, soups, and gravies to a boil.
- Reheat chicken thoroughly and just once. Do not cook chicken, cool and refrigerate it, then reheat more than once.
Following food safety practices prevents harmful bacteria from multiplying to dangerous levels in cooked chicken.
Packaging’s Role in Chicken Preservation
Packaging helps maintain quality and extend shelf life of chicken. Vacuum sealing or modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) removes oxygen from packages, inhibiting bacterial growth.
Many grocery stores are also using antimicrobial packaging to enhance food safety. This packaging contains substances that inhibit bacterial growth on the chicken surface. However, antimicrobial packaging is not meant to replace proper handling and storage of chicken.
While packaging technology has improved chicken safety and extended its usable lifespan, it’s still important to rely on sensory signs and guidelines for maximum freshness and safety post-purchase.
Environmental and Ethical Considerations
When purchasing and cooking chicken:
- Choose organic and free-range chicken from ethically raised chickens when possible, even if the sell by date is earlier. This supports humane practices.
- Buying larger packages rather than smaller portions reduces packaging waste. Repurpose or recycle packaging when able.
- Use chicken within 2 days of the sell by date to minimize food waste. Freeze excess chicken.
- Compost unused chicken and inedible parts like bones to avoid landfill waste.
Making ethical and sustainable choices when buying, storing, and using chicken benefits the environment.
- Check the sell by and use by dates on chicken, but also rely on signs of freshness when selecting chicken.
- Refrigerate chicken properly and freeze it if you won’t use it within a couple days of purchase.
- Look for visual and olfactory signs of spoilage before cooking or eating chicken.
- Follow safe thawing methods when using frozen chicken to prevent foodborne illness.
- Use proper handling and cooking practices to kill bacteria present on raw chicken. Cook to an internal temperature of 165°F.
- Store cooked chicken correctly in the fridge or freezer and reheat thoroughly before consuming leftovers.
- While packaging helps extend shelf life, always rely on your senses versus just package dates to determine if chicken is still fresh.
- Consider environmental and ethical implications when purchasing, storing, and disposing of chicken.
In summary, chicken can often be safely consumed 1-2 days past the sell by date if properly handled and prepared. Freezing extends the shelf life much longer. But it’s always wise to err on the side of caution, especially for high-risk groups like children, pregnant women, and the elderly.
When evaluating if chicken is still good, the nose knows best. Rely on your senses – if it smells bad, looks bad, or feels slimy, don’t risk eating it. Following basic food safety practices provides the best protection against foodborne pathogens that can multiply on perishable chicken.
Read more: how to cook chicken breast in the oven
Bobby Kelly is a bartender at Molly Magees, an Irish pub in Mountain View. He’s been working there for two years and has developed a following among the regulars. Bobby is known for his friendly demeanor and great drink specials. He loves interacting with customers and making them feel welcome. When he’s not at work, Bobby enjoys spending time with his friends and family.