Billions of pounds of food are wasted in the U.S. each year because consumers assume the date on the product is the date when it’s no longer safe to eat. The various phrases used often confuse consumers. There is no federal requirement for food dating, though dating of some foods is required by more than 20 states.
Open and Closed Dating
Open dates can be read by consumers, while closed dates are codes used by manufacturers of boxed and canned food. Manufacturers and retailers use these systems to track and rotate products.
The “use-by” or “best by” dates on food packages are the manufacturers’ recommendations as to the product’s best quality, not necessarily safety guidelines. Even if the date expires at home, a product should be safe, wholesome, and of good quality if handled properly.
Generally, the open date is for properly stored, unopened products. Once you open it, the quality will vary from the date you see on the package as the texture, taste, and nutritional value are no longer guaranteed.
Let’s take a look at some of the phrases you may see on food packages as the USDA defines them:
- A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.
- A “Best if Used By (or Before)” date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
- A “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 the manufacturer’s use
The less common term “expiration date” on the other hand is last date you should use the product. After this date, the food may not retain the same physical and microbiological stability and the nutritional content you see on the label may also vary. It may still smell OK, but use it at your own risk.
Food Storage Tips
Many foods that must be refrigerated after opening will say so on the label. These foods should be kept below 41 degrees Fahrenheit. When foods needing refrigeration are out of the fridge, they shouldn’t be warmer than that temperature for more than four hours total.
In the Refrigerator
Temperatures should be kept at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or colder. Above that temp, bacteria multiply rapidly. Keep a refrigerator thermometer inside to keep track of the temp and check it periodically, especially in warm summer months.
In the Freezer
Food will remain frozen solid in the freezer at 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Freeze fish, poultry, and meat if you won’t use it in a few days. Write on the package the day you froze it if you want to freeze it past the “best before” date.
Also, remember to heed any storing, freezing, or defrosting guidelines you find on the package.
Foods can develop an off odor, flavor or appearance due to spoilage bacteria. Don’t use funky food for quality reasons. The USDA also warns against defrosting at room temperature for more than two hours.
There’s an App for This
The USDA has released a Food Keeper app to help consumers use, store, and prepare food safely and reduce food waste.
The USDA also offers on its Web site a handy chart of the storage times for various food products. For example, fresh poultry can be stored in the fridge for one or two days after purchase, while beef, pork, and eggs can go three to five days.
If a product “sell-by” date has passed, look for something fresher. If you come across a product in your kitchen with an expired “best by/use-by” date, it’s just no longer fresh. If it’s been opened, the quality will likely deteriorate faster than the date indicated on the package. Remember, you don’t have to throw away food after the “best by/use-by” date has come and gone; it’s probably still safe to eat, and remember to cook food to a safe temperature as per FDA. But if it smells off or looks weird or the expiration date has passed, toss it.
“Best before” dates and proper storage tips to avoid food safety risk. http://healthinspectorsnotebook.blogspot.com/2015/11/do-you-pay-attention-to-best-before-and.html
The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America
WebMD: Do Food Expiration Dates Really Matter? http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/features/do-food-expiration-dates-matter
Source: TABC Blog by Learn 2 Serve