Food Expiration Dates: Not a Bad Day

As humans, we’ve been eating for a very long time and actually cooking for about 1.9 million years. It seems that product date labeling hasn’t been around nearly as long and yet, we have survived as a species. Still, those dates scream at us, from the side, top, bottom, or in that weird fold of food packages, to resist purchasing anything too close to today’s date. Have you also felt the rising panic of not being able to find the date stamp on a package of eggs (something that is good for 5 weeks after purchase)? Even soda has a “Best if Used By” date. Soda! That stuff that urban legend says will take the paint off a car has a “Best if Used By” by date!

It’s scary to see those dates looming at us from the refrigerator and cabinets, threatening the health of our families as we try to prepare meals. But what do they really mean? Let’s replace that lightbulb in the fridge, shed some light, and take a closer look at food dating.

The first and most important step to understanding food expiration dates is to recognize that these dates are all about food quality and not about food safety. Second, there is no federal regulation for food dating (with the exception of baby formula).

Here are the types of dates you’ll find on food packaging as defined by the USDA.

  • Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.
  • Best if Used By (or Before)” date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.
  • Closed or coded dates” are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer.

None of those dates speak to safety. Even the “Use-By” date is about peak quality, and that’s the date found on meat, dairy and eggs – things we perceive as the most fragile. The best way to keep food safe it to learn shelf life standards and to store it properly. Freeze meats within 2 days of purchase regardless of the package date. Know the freezer dates for meats: Lamb, pork, veal, beef, poultry are all good for 1 year frozen; ground meat for 4 months; lean fish like flounder are good for 6 months and fatty fish like salmon for 3 months. Packaged luncheon meats are fine for 2 months. Milk and dairy products are good for several days past the package date; yogurt a full 1 to 2 weeks past the package date, even once it’s opened. As mentioned above, eggs are good for 5 weeks after the package date but it is best to store them in the refrigerator not on the door where they heat up each time the door is opened. To check if an egg is good, put it in a glass and fill the glass with water, if the egg sinks it’s good, if it floats it isn’t. Canned foods are technically good forever, even with dents, as long as the seals are not broken or leaking.

The number one way to check for food’s quality, even after considering the date, is your nose. Once food has developed foul odors or flavors, or appears different in any way, it should not be used or consumed any longer. It’s a system that has been working for more than 1.9 million years. Our bodies have perfected the sense. It’s a little like using the Force.

Now that we know food dating is really about food quality, that the date on bread is really about consuming it closest to fresh baked, consider its impact on the mountain of food waste. Grocery stores are forced to throw out $2,300 worth of food on average per day due to product labeling dates. Nine out of ten Americans throw out food needlessly because of these dates, costing a typical American family between $1,350 to $2,275 per year.

Despite the origin and true meaning of these food dates, the plain fact is that tons of food that is good to eat will continue to be discarded. And that is why the service Table to Table provides is so critical. Working within our communities to redistribute food that is slated for disposal not only addresses food waste issues but, more importantly, provides access to needed food for our neighbors in Bergen, Essex, Hudson and Passaic counties. In each and every one of these counties there are people who are struggling and families that don’t know where their next meal will come from. We provide them with the healthy, nutritious food they need to remain satiated and stay healthy. Learn more about how we help at Table to Table.


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