Do Food Expiration Dates Really Matter?

Discussion in 'Back to Basics' started by melbo, Mar 3, 2006.

  1. melbo

    melbo Hunter Gatherer Administrator Founding Member

    Do Food Expiration Dates Really Matter?
    Experts provide a guide to the variety of confusing 'freshness' dates on food.
    By Star Lawrence
    WebMD Feature
    Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

    WebMD Archive

    You open the fridge, drag out the cottage cheese, check for fur, and if there isn't any, you say, "Honey? Will you sniff this?" This is not, however, the approved method of checking for freshness. The approved way lies in a voluntary system of labeling.

    Yes, voluntary. The only items required by federal law to be labeled for expiration are infant formula and some baby foods; some states also mandate pulling dairy from store shelves on the expiration date.

    Learn the Lingo of Expiration Dates
    This brings us to terminology. The actual term "Expiration Date" refers to the last date a food should be eaten or used. Last means last -- proceed at your own risk.

    Other, more commonly spotted terms are:

    • "Sell by" date. The labeling "sell by" tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires. This is basically a guide for the retailer, so the store knows when to pull the item. This is not mandatory, so reach in back and get the freshest. The issue is quality of the item (freshness, taste, and consistency) rather than whether it is on the verge of spoiling. Paul VanLandingham, EdD, a senior faculty member at the Center for Food and Beverage Management of Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., tells WebMD the "sell by" date is the last day the item is at its highest level of quality, but it will still be edible for some time after.
    • "Best if used by (or before)" date. This refers strictly to quality, not safety. This date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date. Sour cream, for instance, is already sour, but can have a zippier, fresh taste when freshly sour (if that's not an oxymoron!)
    • "Born on" date. This is the date of manufacture and has been resurrected recently to date beer. Beer can go sub-par after three months. "It is affected by sun," VanLandingham says. The light can reactivate microorganisms in the beer. That's why you have to be especially careful with beer in clear bottles, as opposed to brown or green.
    • "Guaranteed fresh" date. This usually refers to bakery items. They will still be edible after the date, but will not be at peak freshness.
    • "Use by" date. This is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.
    • "Pack" date. You will find this one on canned or packaged goods, as a rule, but it's tricky. In fact, it may be in code. It can be month-day-year-MMDDYY. Or the manufacturer could revert to the Julian calendar. January would then be 001-0031 and December 334-365. It gets even weirder than that.
    How Long Are Foods OK to Eat?

    If you are not up on your Julian calendar and dating seems sort of a hodgepodge, how about memorizing some basic rules?

    • Milk. Usually fine until a week after the "Sell By" date.
    • Eggs. OK for 3-5 weeks after you bring them home (assuming you bought them before the "sell by" date). VanLandingham says double-grade As will go down a grade in a week but still be perfectly edible.
    • Poultry and seafood. Cook or freeze this within a day or two.
    • Beef and pork. Cook or freeze within three to five days.
    • Canned goods. Highly acidic foods like tomato sauce can keep 18 months or more. Low-acid foods like canned green beans are probably risk-free for up to five years. "You do not want to put cans in a hot place like a crawl space or garage," Peggy VanLaanen, EdD, RD, a professor of food and nutrition at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, tells WebMD. She suggests keeping canned and dry food at 50 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit in a dry, dark place. Humidity can be a factor in speeded-up deterioration. The FDA notes that taste, aroma, and appearance of food can change rapidly if the air conditioning fails in a home or warehouse. Obviously, cans bulging with bacteria growth should be discarded, no matter what the expiration date!
    Food Safety Tips
    Since product dates don't give you a true guide to safe use of a product, here are some other tips from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Services:

    • Purchase the product before the date expires.
    • If perishable, take the food home immediately after purchase and refrigerate it promptly. Freeze it if you can't use it within times recommended on the chart.
    • Once a perishable product is frozen, it doesn't matter if the date expires because foods kept frozen continuously are safe indefinitely.
    • Follow handling recommendations on product.
    Â Storage Times After Purchase
    Poultry 1 or 2 days
    Beef, Veal, Pork, and Lamb 3 to 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

    When Do Other Vital Items Go Bad?

    The FDA does require that drugs carry an expiration date. Alan Goldhammer, PhD, associate vice president for regulatory affairs of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), tells WebMD that safety, purity, and potency must be tested and established over time by drug manufacturers. If a drug says the expiration date is 18 months hence, it means these three qualities can only be guaranteed that long, assuming the drug is stored properly.

    Some critics have accused drug manufacturers of hyping these dates to encourage more drug sales. Goldhammer implies that some drugs may be OK longer than noted, but the manufacturers have not done, say, a 10-year study of how long the drug is good. "They try to establish a reasonable date to allow for time in the supply chain and pharmacy shelves," he says.

    The chemicals in drugs do break down and change over time, becoming more potent (or poisonous) or ineffective. "One of the worst places to store them," Goldhammer offers, "is in the medicine cabinet, which can be hot and humid. Consumers should not let drugs sit around. Why do you think most companies sell them a month or at most three months ahead of time?"

    VanLandingham also notes that humidity can hurt drugs. "That's why they have cotton in them," he explains.

    What about condoms, where a misjudgment could be disastrous? All condoms, the FDA says, have either an expiration or a manufacturing date. They should not be used beyond the expiration date -- more than five years after the date of manufacture.

    The sweetener aspartame, another common item often found in sodas, does break down and become icky-tasting, so don't buy or drink old products containing it.

    Stretching the Expiration Date Through Proper Storage
    VanLandingham is picky about letting food get too hot. The "temperature danger zone" is between 41 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Food needing refrigeration should be kept below 41 degrees. On the loading dock, in the car, on the kitchen table, it should not be outside of that temperature for more than four hours total. You have no idea how long it may have been subjected to higher temperatures before you buy it, so you need to minimize the "standing" factor after you get it.

    Stretching the Expiration Date Through Proper Storage continued...

    "One of the biggest mistakes consumers make is lag time," VanLaanen agrees. For details, she highly recommends Safe Home Food Storage, a Texas A&M book available from

    VanLandingham also warns that most fridges usually aren't holding at 41 degrees or less. "Don't forget recovery time," he says. That's the time it takes to recool after you stand there trying to find a cold beer or decide whether anyone will miss the last piece of cake.

    Milk should be kept at 38 degrees, fish at 32 degrees. The drawers and shelves have different temperatures, thus the term "meat drawer."

    VanLaanen urges consumers to scribble on their own date of purchase, even on canned goods.

    Don't be too cautious. "Some people keep apples five days and go, "Oops, time to go,'" VanLandingham says. "They may still be in mint condition."

    He recommends using your senses (this would be the "Honey, sniff this" thing) to decide if an item is fresh.

    Oh, and that insufferable air-tight packaging? It has a use beyond building character in those attempting to remove it. "This can double shelf life," VanLandingham says. "The item will be good as the day it was packaged."

    Star Lawrence is a medical journalist based in the Phoenix area.
    Last edited: Jan 26, 2015
    Tracy and chelloveck like this.
  2. E.L.

    E.L. Moderator of Lead Moderator Emeritus Founding Member

    That's me!
    Tracy likes this.
  3. ghrit

    ghrit Bad company Administrator Founding Member

    Bump. This recently came up, can't find it to cross reference.
    chelloveck likes this.
  4. tdwhite03

    tdwhite03 Monkey+

    Dang I already learned something! Glad I found this place.
  5. Seawolf1090

    Seawolf1090 Retired Curmudgeonly IT Monkey Founding Member

    I've had some food items go bad before their 'expiration date', even stored well. Some I have eaten safely well beyond the date.
    Nothing is an exact science, but these are good guidelines.
  6. Turtle

    Turtle Monkey+

    I used to work for a major retailer and the delivery man for the snack cakes was required to toss out everything we had that was over a certain date each week...even though they would remain fresh for well over 2 weeks and probably safe to eat for a month longer or more.As a result...i was privileged to a rather sizeable amount of free snacks every week.But sell by,best before and expiration date all mean different things...if you doubt the freshness or safety fof anything just toss's not worth getting sick to save a few bucks.
  7. ozarkgoatman

    ozarkgoatman Resident goat herder

    If you have farm eggs that have not been washed I repeat HAVE NOT BEEN WASHED then they will store for months. There is a protective coating on the outside that doesn't let air in the egg.

    watchfullmom, Tracy and Sapper John like this.
  8. Seawolf1090

    Seawolf1090 Retired Curmudgeonly IT Monkey Founding Member

    The stuff in our Geedunk at work is usually so stale, I believe WE are getting the 'out-dated' crap......
    At one point they actually stocked a bunch of Mexican-made 'look-a-like' junk - their "M&Ms" were NOTHING like the real thing, nor their ripoff of Reeses Cups. That crap didn't sell, once we'd tasted it. But the State cafeterias are always taking the cheap way out.

    Most canned goods I get lately have only a two-year 'best by' date. Haven't had any go bad beyond that though.

    I do change out the "Ready To Eat Rice" meal packets at expiration - they can go bad fast - last about a year from purchase. I 'have' eaten one two years beyond the expiration date, but like was said above, they shouldn't be chanced - too cheap to take chances!
  9. idahoelkhunter

    idahoelkhunter Monkey+

    I lived on a sailboat for 3 years. I’ve been told if you get “farm fresh” eggs and coat them in Vaseline, they will last months. Never tried it. I did scrape a bunch of mold off of some sour cream and ate the (non moldy) stuff about 6 hours ago and I am still alive – lol.
  10. Seawolf1090

    Seawolf1090 Retired Curmudgeonly IT Monkey Founding Member

    "Waterglass", or Sodium Silicate,is a classic old-time method off preserving eggs.

    Sodium silicate - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    Food preservation
    Sodium silicate was also used as an egg preservation agent in the early 20th century with large success. When fresh eggs are immersed in it, bacteria which cause the eggs to spoil are kept out and water is kept in. Eggs can be kept fresh using this method for up to nine months. When boiling eggs preserved this way, it is well advised to pin-prick the egg to allow steam to escape because the shell is no longer porous.

    Til I read this, I did not know nearly all that waterglass is used for!
    Last edited by a moderator: Jan 26, 2015
    PinoyBoy likes this.
  11. PinoyBoy

    PinoyBoy Monkey+

    I never knew about the sodium silicate stuff. Stupid question I know, but does the egg have to be refrigerated if it's coated in that stuff?

    How about freezer burns?
  12. E.L.

    E.L. Moderator of Lead Moderator Emeritus Founding Member

    I ate some canned goods last week that expired in 2008. Tasted the sane as the stuff. Te retort process renders it safe as long as the seal on the can is intact and it is not bulged.
  13. CottageLife

    CottageLife Monkey+

    tulianr likes this.
  14. watchfullmom

    watchfullmom Monkey+

    I'll have to find the link but there was someone who actually did a test of eggs to see how they store best, including the vasoline and water glass. It came out that farm fresh not washed and stored in the bottom of the fridge was the best and they lasted months. When in doubt float them in water-if they float toss them.
    BTPost likes this.
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