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Why you should ignore food date labels

Inflation made many households more careful about not wasting food, yet the dates on them can be confusing.

SAN ANTONIO — We can't avoid buying food or escape the high prices. But we can reduce how much food we toss. 

Anyone who buys groceries routinely will know the familiar phrases on packaging: "Best by," "sell by," "best if used by," "born on." It gives you food for thought as you try to decide if the item is good or bad to consume after that date.

“Expiration dates by the federal government, there is no requirement,” said Amanda Wilson, a sanitarian services manager for the City of San Antonio Metropolitan Health Department.

With no national standard on food expiration dates, those labels aren't indicators of safety but taste. For example, a sell-by date is the last day a product can be on a store shelf. All other dates indicate when a food item has its best flavor, but is still consumable after that date.

“We, as consumers, because of all the variance in the language, we often see that date and say, ‘Alright, it’s done,'” said Jackie Suggit of ReFED, a nonprofit that works to reduce food waste.

Chef Instructor Patrick Costello at St. Philip's College Culinary Arts Program said while it is still edible, however, it may not be as palatable.

“What they are trying to tell you is, 'Can you have it after this date? Sure,'” Costello said. “But they are only guaranteeing the quality of that product up until that date. The use-by date, you really want to pay just as much attention to if you want the best possible result with your food at the end of the day.”

Credit: KENS
Patrick Costello is an instructor of culinary arts at St. Phillip's College.

No labeling standards mean no universal understanding.

“We see anywhere from a 25% to 65% understanding of what a label means to consumer,” Suggit said. “So, not incredibly high. But the reality right now for a consumer is they’re going to walk into a store and see dozens of different labels and it can range from packaged on to 'sell-by' to my personal favorite: 'Most delicious if consumed by.' What do you do with that as a consumer?”

The exceptions

The only hard and fast rule when it comes to dates on food is infant formula. It is no good after the use-by date.

Also, be suspicious of any food where the packaging is damaged, especially canned goods. Canned goods can last up to five years past the date label, but if there are dents, rust or the packaging is bloated, it is better not to risk eating it.

“Now bacteria have the opportunity to grow there,” Wilson said. “So don’t buy something that has big dents in it. Look for it before you buy it.”

Fresh protein-based items such as meat also don't last long past the date label.

“Those are really where you’re going to start getting kind of sketchy,” Costello said.

He said it's good to get in the habit of looking at what food you have and the date labels so you can use the items before there is any question about if they are good or bad so they don't end up wasted.

“Every now and then you should just go through the pantry, take a look at everything,” Costello said. “It stings a little, but throw some things away now and then.”

Follow your nose

For all the other items in your pantry, there is an easy way to tell if the food is still good past the date on the label: Open it and see if it passes the sniff test. Also, look to see if it is discolored. If either is off, throw it out.

“We would encourage consumers to use their senses to determine whether or not it’s good,” Suggit said. 

“In almost every case, with the exception of contamination, it’s going to smell bad, it’s going to look bad or it’s going taste bad long before it’s going to do any harm.”

There's an app for that

Or, use the Food Keeper app. Food Keeper tells you how long a food will keep after purchase, taking the mystery out of whether or not you should munch, said Andrew Harig of Food Marketing Institute, which helped to create the app.

“This is a tremendous guide,” he said. "If you can go and use it and look at it and try to put into practice, it’s going to help extend the life of products. When you throw away that product, you’re just throwing away money. I think even the wealthiest out there don’t want to just go ahead and throw it in the trash. You want to make sure that you’re making good use of your funds.”

For instance, Food Keeper said eggs are good up to five weeks after purchase.

Another way to extend the life of your food is to freeze it before it goes bad. Almost anything, including eggs, can be frozen, allowing you to give those date labels the cold should for many months.

Credit: Food Keeper
Food Keeper makes it easier for users to determine how long their food has before spoiling, as well as how best to prolong their freshness.

Keep in mind, however, that once you open a product, the date label no longer applies. You will need to eat the item or toss it within a few days.

“While it’s still sealed, it’s airtight. So you’ve got a pretty good window it can sit in your pantry,” Costello said. “Once you open it up, you got to keep it in the refrigerator. We all know that once you open it, you kind of change that use-by date.”

ReFED is working on a federal solution to standardize food labels, potentially as part of the Farm Bill.

“If we were to do it, we would see about 580,000 tons of food waste reduced,” Suggit said.

The Food Marketing Institute is also working on having food manufacturers use only two labels – “best if used by” and “use by” – in order to try to bring more clarity to food dates.


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