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Food Expiration Dates

Would this be safe to eat December 2021? Yes!

Nutrition labels aren’t the only confusing thing on food packaging. In Just the Facts, Ma’am, we went over what terms like “Whole Grain,” “Lite,” and “Zero Trans Fat” really meant, but there’s another area of confusion—those  dates stamped on cans, boxes, and other packages. Misunderstanding these dates leads to food waste and a big hit on your wallet.

There’s no national standard on food expiration date labels, except for infant formula (see below) so manufacturers come up with their own dates. In the absence of federal guidelines, most states (43) have come up with laws defining how stores deal with food expiration dates. For example, in Washington state, certain foods, such as eggs, milk, and cottage cheese, are required to have a “sell by” or “pull by” date set one week prior to typical spoilage. Stores are required to remove these products from sale by this date, even though it is not spoiled and won’t spoil for at least a week. Fortunately, Washington does allow these pulled products to be donated to food banks for distribution. Other states have different rules, which vary widely, including length of time something can be sold in stores and whether items past sell by dates can be donated or not.

Montana has even stricter guidelines, requiring stores to discard milk if it isn’t sold within 12 days of pasteurization, despite producers insisting milk is good up to 21 days post-pasteurization:

But it’s not just milk. According to estimates from the USDA, stores and consumers discard 133 billion pounds ($161 billion) of good food a year. Not only could this have fed people who needed it, but it is a waste of energy and labor used to produce, transport, and store the food, and creates the greenhouse gas, methane, when included in municipal dumps. Food waste makes up the largest component in landfills where it produces the greenhouse gas, methane. In the US alone, methane produced from wasted food in dumps is equivalent to the amount of greenhouse gases produced by 37 million cars every year!

Food waste is a huge problem. So much food is thrown away by grocery stores that people actually live on dumpster diving! The film, Just Eat It, documents a couple doing just that and it’s fascinating (and appalling that there’s actually too much food for them to consume).

What Do These Dates Really Mean?

These dates can be confusing, so let’s decipher them:

“Best by” or “Best if used by”

These are dates for what the manufacturer believes are for best flavor, color, etc., not a purchase or safety date. Foods are likely just as nutritious past these dates. It’s likely that this is just a marketing tool to get stock moved off grocery store shelves or to have consumers throw away and repurchase.

These crackers won’t spoil or go stale by this date (they’re likely sealed in plastic). It’s an arbitrary date set by the manufacturer.

“Use by”

This is the only federal food safety date.  The FDA requires a Use By date on all infant formula to ensure that it still contains the amount of nutrients listed on the nutrition label and maintains a consistency to pass through a baby bottle nipple. The manufacturer still determines the date. Do not buy or use infant formula past the Use-By date.

Baby formula is the only food with a Federally-regulated food expiration date.

“Sell by” or “Pull by”

This date tells stores how long they can sell or display the product. It’s not an expiration date and is still safe to eat after this date. In many states, stores will just throw these away after the sell by date has passed. In Washington, stores can sell or donate products that have reached this date but are not yet spoiled. Other states have different regulations.

This carton will be pulled if not sold by December 16 (2019) but it will still be safe and edible!

“Packed on” or “Closed on” or coded

This is an indicator of when an item was packaged, sealed, or canned. They are simply packing numbers used by manufacturers, not an expiration date. Usually used to identify items in case of a recall.

Oftentimes the printing is just manufacturing codes and dates, not expiration dates.

It’s Likely Not Expired, Totally Edible, and Safe.

It’s important to realize that the dates on food are usually arbitrary and used more for marketing than food safety. So don’t throw away that can of corn with the use by date from two months ago, it’s likely just fine and tastes no different than the can you pick up today to replace it. And those discounted foods hidden in the dark corners of your supermarket? Buy them and save some cash!

Shelves of discounted, totally good food in a dark hallway at my local Safeway store.

The USDA even agrees. Here are the guidelines from the USDA on canned food storage:

Low-acid foods (canned meat, poultry, fish, stew, soups, green vegetables beans, carrots, corn, peas, potatoes, etc.) can be stored 2-5 years.

High-acid foods (canned juices, fruit, pickles, sauerkraut, tomatoes, tomato soup), for 1-1.5 years.

Don’t use canned foods that are:

  • Heavily rusted, i.e. more than just surface rust that wipes off, or rusted inside the can
  • Swollen
  • Dented deep enough to lay your finger in or has sharp points

And check out the FoodKeeper App developed by the USDA and Cornell University to search food storage recommendation guidelines.

Free Yourself from Fear of Food Dates

Be a smart consumer!

I commonly see posts in Facebook groups that say, “OMG, I just found a package of tofu in my refrigerator that has a sell by date from 5 days ago. I’m so bummed I have to throw it away!” Remember, it’s a sell by date, not a use by date. If the package is intact, not swollen, not moldy or showing signs of spoilage (discoloration, fizziness), doesn’t smell when you open it, it’s fine! The same goes for canned and other packaged foods.

Don’t be fooled. Be a smart consumer, armed with food date knowledge, and don’t throw away perfectly good food.

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