What Does It Mean When Your Food Packaging Is Bloated?

If your chicken, tofu, sausage, or steak looks like it's bursting out of its packaging, that might be a sign that the item is not safe for consumption. While not all foods that contain a little excess air (like bagged salads or potato chips, which need the additional space to prevent you from coming home with a bag full of crumbs) are risky for consumption, when it comes to meat and poultry, eaters should be on alert if it looks bloated and just plain odd, Taste of Home reports. Indeed, even if the item is not yet expired, USDA food safety expert Meredith Carothers told EatingWell, if the packaging looks puffy, feels funky, or just doesn't look like it should, there may be bacteria brewing beneath it.

So, why do foods — particularly items like meat or poultry — sometimes blow up? And how can you tell if your next meal may put your health at risk and potentially give you food poisoning or be totally safe to eat? Here's how to assess if your next grocery store haul and make sure it's okay to eat.

How to tell if bloated food is expired

If your food looks like it's about to pop out of the packaging, it could be from the excess gas (like carbon dioxide) that's produced by bacteria in spoiled food, according to Taste of Home. While this bacteria will sometimes only lead to your food going bad, it can cause food poisoning — and you might even be able to smell it. When bacteria forms in spoiled food, it can cause a foul odor in addition to a swollen package, food safety expert Meredith Carothers with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service told EatingWell. Carothers added that any off smelling food should not be consumed, even if it's not past the expiration date. 

Still, it's important to note that not all food inside a puffed-up package is dangerous to eat, Wei Zhang, a professor of food science and food safety at the Illinois Institute of Technology, tells Taste of Home. People living in areas with high-altitude (like parts of Colorado) can see foods inflate because the air pressure in the package is higher than the outside air pressure. In situations like this, your food may still be okay to consume. What's more, Carothers told EatingWell some meats and poultry are packed in modified atmosphere packaging, or "MAP." This, she said, is a way of packing food to prolong its shelf life and maintain freshness. As the process includes adding gases to the pack that can create a slight swelling, this is not always something that should cause alarm.

Though some bloated foods are okay to eat, it's always better to be safe than sorry. If the food smells off, is past the best-by date, or looks spoiled, it would be wise to toss it.