Are You Wasting Food Because of Confusing Dates?
I love to get a good deal on the usual supplies I keep in my pantry. Mayo, mustard, ketchup, peanut butter – sometimes cake mixes and nuts. You can usually get a good price at the discount stores, but you have to pay close attention to the expiration dates on food.
I know we’ve all been in this predicament. You’ve purchased some salad dressing and it’s been in the cupboard for awhile. When you pull it out to use on your tasty salad; you notice it’s past the use-by date.
Should you eat it, or throw it – and your hard earned money, away?
I’ve done some research about what expiration dates really mean and found out some surprising facts, the dates on food labels can be confusing. The truth is,they often have nothing to do with food safety.
You might think you’ve got to ditch the dressing and settle for a ho-hum salad. But that’s not the case. Here’s what you need to know about food expiration dates.
Know Your Food Package Terms:
Use-By, Best if Used By, Best By, Best Before – are generally found on shelf-stable products like mayonnaise, mustard, and peanut butter. This will usually refer to how long a product is likely to stay at its absolute best. It is not a safety date.
After this date, you may begin to notice gradual changes in the texture color or flavor of the product. As long as you’ve been storing the unopened product properly (not in excessive heat, out of moisture and long-term sunlight) you can generally consume it.
As stated in a recent report from the NRDC, confusing food labels are leading to big food waste in America and the dates on our food labels are not regulated the way many people believe. Most dates do not have anything to do with the safety of the food.
About 40 percent of all food produced in the United States does not get eaten. That’s like buying five bags of groceries and dropping two in the parking lot without bothering to pick them up. It’s crazy!
How do you tell whether a shelf stable food is safe to eat? Simply smell and examine it first. Always discard foods with an off color, odor or flavor. Consult the Still Tasty Keep it or Toss it Database or the USDA FoodKeeper App for detailed information about specific products. Be aware, both of these databases are very conservative when it comes to expiration dates on food storage.
Sell-By: Most sell-by dates are found on perishables like meat, seafood, poultry and milk. You should buy a perishable item before the sell-by date expires. The date is a guide for stores to know how long they can display a particular product.
I’ve found that you can always get a longer shelf life, especially on dried food, if you follow safe packaging practices.
From Still Tasty, “For instance, milk that has been continuously refrigerated will usually remain drinkable for about one week after the “sell by” date on the package. Likewise, you can store ground beef in your refrigerator for 1 to 2 days after purchasing it, even if the sell-by date expires during that time.”
Expires On: You’re most likely to encounter an expires on date on infant formula and baby food. These are the only food products the federal government regulates with expiration dates. You should always use the product before this date has passed.
Packing codes: These codes, which appear as a series of letters and/or numbers on the package, sometimes indicate the date or time of manufacture. You’ve seen them; they look like a meaningless jumble on the bottom of a can.
These packing codes help manufacturers and grocers rotate their stock and quickly locate products in the event of a recall. But they are not meant to be interpreted as an indicator of either food safety or quality. For more information on product dating, visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service Web site.
You can also look at the individual manufacturer’s website. Most manufacturers offer a toll-free number to call for questions about canned food expiration dates.
Top 5 questionable foods
There are some foods that you should always question for safety reasons. These are my top 5 always throw away food items.
- Eggs past their use by date.
- Fresh fruit that has begun to break down.
- Milk or other milk products with an off smell.
- Bagged salad or spinach.
- Soft cheese with mold. You can safely cut mold off of hard cheese, but not soft cheeses like brie, feta, or ricotta.
So, the big takeaway is this:
As long as you have properly stored your shelf stable food items, it is alright to consume food after the “best if used by” date. Use your “best” judgment and save some money!
Rhoda Newton says
Funny, isn’t it how we don’t need to stress about it!
I guess all those different terms (sell-by, best-before) can get really confusing.
But then, how perfect does your food need to be? 🙂
Tara @ KitchenSanity says
Agreed Rhoda! Most food that is past either loses its flavor or just tastes awful so that you’d toss it out. Of course there are some things, those that are wet, that are more likely to contain bacteria. I think the biggest threat is cross-contamination of raw fish and meats to cooked or raw food like salad.
There are applications for the calculation of the expiration date, I use it https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=info.shelflife.shelflife
Yogurt is a weird one. As long as it has NOT been opened (seal broken), and properly refrigerated, if it says “contains active yogurt cultures” I have had it be good and tasty as long as a full year after date. This was not a deliberate experiment, I got it from a food bank and it was fine. However, I have done it later w/ other yogurts and as long as the seal isn’t broken, we’ve never had problems. If you break the seal, use in a month or you will get mold.