Almost everything you pick up in a grocery store these days, from dried herbs to eggs, canned goods to fresh meat, has at least one date on the label. But it's …
Almost everything you pick up in a grocery store these days, from dried herbs to eggs, canned goods to fresh meat, has at least one date on the label. But it's not always clear what that date means. Throw that carton of milk or can of green beans out too soon and you are wasting food -- Business Insider magazine estimates that Americans toss $165 billion of their food dollars into the trash or compost heap every year. Yet hold onto it too long and you could be jeopardizing your health. And the major reason we throw so much food away? Confusion over expiration dates.
There are two basic kinds of dating on food labels:
1. Sell-by date - Tells retailers when the product should be removed from the shelf. Except in a few special cases -- like infant formula and some baby foods -- it does not mean the product is unsafe to consume after that date.
2. Expiration dates - "Best By," "Best if used by" and "Use by" are the most common. Geared to consumers and they all mean the same thing: the time frame when the product is at its freshest or its highest quality. Those dates (again, with the exception of infant formula) do not mean the food is no longer edible and should be thrown out.
How about eggs?
Although there are no federal requirements for eggs to be dated, some states do regulate the length of time they can be sold and the uniform codes on the carton need to be interpreted.
All egg packaging that displays the USDA shield must include the three-digit code for their "pack day" -- the day the eggs were washed, graded and placed in the carton. In this system, each number refers to a day in calendar year, with Jan. 1 coded as 001 and Dec. 31 as 365. A carton coded 0629 would have been packed on June 29, for example, while 1108 would stand for Nov. 8.
In general, though, dating food products is not required by the federal government and there is no set formula for calculating those dates. Manufacturers consider the kind of product, how long it takes to distribute it, how long it is likely to sit on the shelf, how it is stored during shipping and in market, the ingredients and the type of packaging into account when they set a sell-by or expiration date.
Many foods are safe to eat long after their expiration date.
WebMD.com offers these basic rules of thumb:
• Milk is usually good for a week past the expiration date
• Eggs in their cartons can be kept for 3 to 5 weeks
• Fresh poultry and seafood needs to be cooked or frozen within a day or two
• Fresh beef, lamb or pork should be cooked or frozen within three to five days
High-acid canned goods (like tomato sauce) are usually safe to eat for 18 months beyond their expiration date; low-acid foods can be kept and consumed for up to five years.
Pay close attention to ...
Dates to pay closer attention to because the foods can harbor dangerous bacteria include deli meats, unpasteurized dairy products, ready-to-eat refrigerated foods and hot dog or sausages that aren't fully cooked. Visit Eatbydate.com for more detailed information on shelf life, storage and expiration dates for hundreds of canned, frozen and fresh foods.
Signs of spoilage -- sliminess, off odors, flavor, color or texture or bulging cans -- are more important than expiration dates to determine food safety. If you aren't sure if a product is still safe to eat, you can go to AskKaren.gov, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service's virtual representative. She not be human, but she is available 24/7.
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