Think Before You Throw Out Healthy Food
Those "sell by" dates donít mean what you assume. Check our guide to food storage instead.
Have you ever looked at a "sell by" or "best if used by" date on a food container, checked the calendar, and thrown out something because it had "expired"? You’re part of a $165 billion a year problem. About 40% of America’s food gets wasted, much of it because of a confusing patchwork of state laws that make people think food that’s still safe to eat should be trashed.
Given our familiarity with various dates on the food we buy, it might be surprising to learn that the only federal rules for such labeling apply to infant formula. Other rules vary from state to state, so in some places most foods carry some sort of date and elsewhere almost none do. Many types of food dating are designed for retailers, not consumers at all. And most don't mean what you probably think they do.
LABEL LANGUAGE: According to the US Department of Agriculture, dates stamped on products’ packages usually indicate when a food should be purchased or used in order to enjoy its peak quality: "It is not a safety date. After the date passes, while it may or may not be of best quality, refrigerated products should still be safe if handled properly and kept at 40 degrees or below for the recommended storage times."
Here's what the most common date label terms really mean:
- Sell by [date] - This tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires, but it is still safe to consume after that date if stored properly. Eggs, for example, can be used up to five weeks after the sell by or expiration date on the carton.
- Best if used by (or before) [date] - This is not a purchase or safety date, but rather a guideline for enjoying the best flavor or quality. In some cases the consumer may not be able to tell the difference, however.
- Use by [date] - This 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, and may or may not have any relation to safety or spoilage. The USDA advises following "use by" dates, however.
- Guaranteed fresh until [date] - Usually applied to bakery items, this is again an issue of quality, not safety. Foods are still safe past this date, though not at their best.
STORAGE SMARTS: According to the USDA, once a perishable food product is frozen, you can forget about any dates stamped on it; foods kept frozen continuously are safe indefinitely. Keep in mind, however, that modern "frost-free" freezers go through routine warming cycles to defrost their coils. Combined with the warm-up caused by opening the door or lid to retrieve frozen foods, this can degrade quality and contribute to ice crystals and "freezer burn."
Canned goods also have a long shelf life, especially if stored at cool room temperature in a dry, dark place. Acidic canned foods such as tomato sauce will last at least 18 months, while low-acid canned foods should be safe for up to five years. (Of course, a swollen can or one with a bulging lid indicates bacterial contamination and should be thrown away.)
Just because a food hasn’t hit its "expiration" date doesn't mean it's safe, on the other hand. The temperature at which a food has been stored and the consistency of that storage is more important to food safety than "sell by" dates: Those bratwurst that sat unrefrigerated at the family picnic for a few hours should be tossed; putting them back in the fridge won’t make them safe again.