Have you ever wondered about the best by date on food? I learned something recently that made me rethink what I thought about that. It all happened the other weekend when I took our church youth group to the Georgia division of the Midwest Food Bank.
The Midwest Food Bank is a faith-based organization whose mission is to alleviate hunger and poverty by gathering and distributing food donations to not-for-profits and disaster sites without cost to the recipients. They distribute nearly $7 million dollars of food each month – food that is donated by food manufacturers, distributors, grocers, community and organizational food drives and from individual donors.
Several times during the night the kids noticed the items we were packaging looked old. The mini-Snickers bars we were counting by the thousands had Valentine’s wrappers on them. The cardboard packaging of the Cheez-It boxes was crushed and the Pop-Tarts boxes were open.
The director explained that as long as the interior packaging is not compromised the item is safe to use. He also mentioned this astonishing fact – Americans throw out 40% of the food whose label says it’s past it best by date. That’s millions and millions of dollars worth of food being discarded each year.
But should all that food be thrown out? How do you know whether it’s safe to eat?
As you are going to see it all depends on the wording.
Understanding Food Product Dating
Labeling on food can be confusing. I went to the refrigerator this morning as I wrote this article (4/21) and pulled out a yogurt that said “Sell by Mar 31 15.” What would run through your head in that situation?
Probably the same thing that ran through mine – “There’s no way I’m eating that!”
And I didn’t eat it. It was thrown away.
But what if it had said “Best By…” or “Use By…?” Would that have altered my perception of the product?
According to the USDA, federal regulations do not require product dating (except with infant formula). If the manufacturer does choose to stamp a calendar date on the product it must express the month and day of month (and the year in case of shelf-stable [i.e. cans, boxes] and frozen products). If they show a calendar date they are required to explain the meaning of that date.
There are four main types of explanations (codes) stamped on product packages:
- Sell by. This type of date tells the store how long to leave the item on the shelf and display it for sale. As a consumer, you would want to purchase this item before the “sell by” date expires. They are usually found on perishable items such as meat, seafood, poultry and milk.
- Best by (or best before). The best by date is not a purchase by or safety date. Rather it recommends to the consumer the date by which they can expect the product to be at peak quality.
- Use by. This is the last date recommended by the manufacturer for the use of the product while still at peak quality.
- Closed or coded dates. These are simply packing numbers used by the manufacturer and reveal nothing to the consumer about the freshness or quality of the product.
(A fifth type of label “Expires On” is usually only found on infant formula and some baby food. Those are the only foods the federal government regulates with dating. In those instances always use the food before it expires.)
So the stamp you see will determine whether you should purchase the product or not and whether you should use the product or not.
Should You Use an Item After the Best By Date?
Several factors will determine whether to use an item after the best by date.
One factor will be the type of item. Non-perishable items (aka shelf-stable products) such as canned goods, mustard, mayo, peanut butter and candy last well past the “best by” date. Perishable items such as meats, eggs and milk will have a shorter lifespan after the “best by” date.
The larger factor to consider though relates to how the product has been used and taken care of since you brought it home.
Generally speaking, a product should be safe at home even after the product date expires as long as it has been handled properly. If you defrost items for too long or practice poor sanitation when handling them, it could lead to contamination.
The best advice is to follow the handling and preparation instructions for that item. And always practice the sight and smell tests. If it looks bad and smells bad it probably is bad. Discard the items if they are discolored or have developed an odor.
How Long Can I Store An Item?
You are probably asking the same question I am at this point now that we’ve realized product dates aren’t the end-all guide to safe use of a product:
“How long can I store an item and it still be of high quality?”
The USDA has laid out some guidelines to answer that question. First you always want to make sure you purchase the item before the date is passed and promptly refrigerate or freeze any perishable item. Once the item is frozen and remains continually frozen it will be safe indefinitely.
If the products are fresh or uncooked and have a “use-by” date, follow that date.
If you are dealing with fresh or uncooked items and the product has a “sell-by” date or no date at all, then cook or freeze the item according to the following chart:
The storage times change if the products are processed and sealed at a plant:
Eat It or Give It
Knowing what dates mean and how to handle the food can go a long way in easing your mind over eating that product that is past its “best by” date. And it will help you save money in the long run because you are not throwing out perfectly good food.
And if for some reason you feel uncomfortable eating it, recognize that somebody else may not care. If the product has been stored properly and is not compromised then it’s perfectly safe to donate to local food bank or give to someone who may have a need. They will be thankful and appreciate you were thinking of them.
Questions: Do you throw out food after the best by date? Can you notice a change in quality of items that have been frozen for long periods of time? A few years ago I tried a stick of gum from a 1977 baseball card pack I purchased…What’s the oldest (passed its date) food product you’ve ever tried?