To Eat? Or Not to Eat?
A guide to Help You Decide When Food Items are Fit for Consumption
In the flurry of “use by,” “sell by” and “best by” dates on food labels, it’s a wonder most people aren’t up to their necks in expired food as they try to navigate the date code hieroglyphics.
Still, we’ve come a long way from only a few decades ago, when food freshness was determined by color codes, or a string of numbers and letters, that only grocery store managers and food companies could decipher. More often than not, it was difficult to impossible to get a clear explanation from anyone about what those codes meant.
These days, however, it’s relatively easy to know when foods on the shelf are at their best and when it may be time to give them a toss.
Unfortunately for the consumer, there is no uniform or universally accepted system of date coding in this country. In fact, most states nationwide don’t require stores to have printed expiration dates on food. In short, you’ll have to navigate on your own. But, remember, most food store managers will be happy to help you decipher that date on your gallon of milk, package of cereal, can of tomatoes or carton of eggs. (If a calendar date is used on a product, however, federal regulations say it must include the month and the day of the month. Canned and frozen products must also include the year.)
The first step in taking the guesswork out of feeding your family is to remember that food dates are not safety dates — they are quality dates. That means if your milk is “best by” the first of the month, you can still drink it on the second, but don’t expect it to taste as crisp and fresh as it did when you bought it.
“Shelf life is going to be determined by the actual chemical components of the food,” said Lee Cornman, acting director of the Division of Food Safety at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Stores and manufacturers use two kinds of coding to determine how long food will stay on the shelf and how long consumers should keep the food once it’s at home.
Closed dating is normally saved for non-perishable foods. You’ve probably seen these jumbles of numbers
and letters on the bottoms of the canned vegetables in your pantry. These are meant more for use by manufacturers than consumers. As a general rule of thumb, mealtime.org says canned foods should be eaten within two years of processing; however, they could potentially last much longer.
Coding used for closed dating varies from company to company, so consumers can’t always crack them on their own, but they can contact the manufacturers for the information.
Open dating — those are the use by, sell by and best by dates — is used mainly on perishable goods like meat, eggs and dairy products. These kinds of products have actual dates instead of codes to help customers and grocery workers tell what foods are at their peak of freshness and what needs to be taken off the shelves.
Generally, the “use by” and “best by” dates simply tell shoppers the last day to get the best quality or flavor from food. The manufacturer sets this date and while the best policy is to abide by it, many foods can still be safely consumed after this date has passed. And, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, once a perishable product is frozen, it doesn’t matter if the date expires because foods kept frozen continuously are safe indefinitely.
In the case of infant formula and some baby foods, however, the USDA says the products should not be used after the date printed on the label — not just because of the possible decline in quality, but also a drop in the nutrient value.
“Sell by” dates don’t tell how long a product can be eaten. These dates are simply meant to let a store know when it’s time to remove an item from the shelves. But, a general rule of thumb is that shoppers shouldn’t buy food after the “sell by” date.
“Manufacturers know the science of their product, and they’re going to give the best quality recommended use date that they can to the customers,” Cornman said. “It doesn’t mean that there’s a fixed ‘you must throw it away at this time and this date.’”
In general, high-acid canned foods such as tomatoes, grapefruit and pineapple will retain best quality on the shelf for 12 to 18 months; low-acid canned foods such as meat, poultry, fish and most vegetables will retain best quality on the shelf for 2 to 5 years — if the can remains in good condition and has been stored in a cool, clean, dry place.
The dates printed on cans and food labels are a good way to gauge the freshness of a product, but what is most important in food safety is proper storage.
Cornman recommends investing in a refrigerator thermometer to make sure the temperature in the fridge is always 40 degrees or cooler. However, that ideal temperature is not quite cold enough for fish to have a full shelf life. Simply putting the fish in the fridge will leave you with about two days to either cook it or freeze it.
“Keep the fish on ice in the fridge at a temperature of about 30 degrees,” says Matt McCreless, general manager at the Southern Seafood Market. “If you do that, you should have three to four days of shelf life.”
No matter how much time the label gives you, if you leave your milk on the counter or in a too-warm refrigerator, it can spoil and drinking it would be a bad idea.
For perishable products that have just a sell by date or no date at all, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection service provides an online fact sheet that can help with figuring out when foods are safe and when it’s time to toss it out.
How long does food keep in the refrigerator?Helpful storage tips from the USDA:
If product has a “use-by” date: follow that date.
If product has a “sell-by” date or no date: cook or freeze the product by the times on these charts.
Fresh or Uncooked ProductStorage Times After Purchase Poultry 1 or 2 days Beef, Veal, Pork and Lamb
3 or 5 days Ground Meat and Ground Poultry
1 or 2 days
Fresh Variety Meats (Liver, Tongue,
Brain, Kidneys, Heart, Chitterlings)
1 or 2 days Cured Ham, Cook-Before-Eating 5 to 7 days Sausage from Pork, Beef
or Turkey, Uncooked 1 or 2 days Eggs 3 to 5 weeks
Processed Product Unopened,
After Purchase After Opening Cooked Poultry 3 to 4 days
3 to 4 days
Cooked Sausage 3 to 4 days
3 to 4 days
Sausage, Hard/Dry, shelf-stable 6 weeks/pantry 3 weeks
Corned Beef, uncooked,
in pouch with pickling juices 5 to 7 days
3 to 4 days
Commercial Brand with USDA seal 2 weeks
3 to 4 days
Bacon 2 weeks
Hot dogs 2 weeks
Luncheon meat 2 weeks
3 to 5 days
Ham, fully cooked 7 days
slices, 3 days;
whole, 7 days
Ham, canned, labeled
“keep refrigerated” 9 months
3 to 4 days Ham, canned, shelf stable 2 years/pantry
3 to 5 days
Canned Meat and Poultry,
shelf stable 2 to 5 years/pantry
3 to 4 days