We've all done it. Grabbed something from the fridge and wondered if it was still OK to eat. Before you read further, pause and think about how you treat expiration dates, then see if you agree / disagree / learn something new from the rest of this article.
I'm going to guess that there are two kinds of people in this world - those who somewhat take expiration dates into account and those who absolutely obsess about them. Which reminds me of a favorite joke: there are two kinds of people in this world, those who group people into two groups, and those who don't. Anyway.....
I'm close to the "obsess" group. I eat all manner of exotic foods, including street foods in Asia, bizarre ingredients found in ethnic markets and some of the more obscure ingredients in the grocery store. However, one poorly stored or handled hamburger, or a serving of chicken from a chafing dish at a catered event can send me (and not necessarily others) running to find a bathroom. I'm a canary in the coal mine for food-borne bacteria.
So I try to select products labelled with the furthest date in the future, hoping they are freshest (often behind the older ones). I also toss out cans and jars of product if they pass an expiration date. That may or may not really be too important, especially if the product were stored properly (cool dry place, fridge, etc). Read on....
Use By? Sell By? Best By?
First thing you should know is that the only federal law requiring expiration labeling applies to infant formula and some baby foods. The rest of the labeling is voluntary. It's primary purpose is, no surprise, for retailers and manufacturers to manage their stock, not necessarily to protect us. I could say they also manage their reputation with the dating, to be more fair to them.
But again, the dating is voluntary at all levels. You're at your own risk.
There are all kinds dates out there: "Display Until", "Best if used by", "Sell By", "Best Before". In general, all these dates refer to the quality of the item, not hard and fast food safety regulations. Some products include a date of manufacture, which may be embedded in a coded string of numbers and letters, but usually isn't too hard to figure out.
I know I've bought meat near the "sell by" date, with good intention of using it right away, but didn't. That's not necessarily bad. If the meat is stored properly, looks and smells good, it might be good (see the table below for guidance).
On the other hand, I've bought meats that are well before their "sell by" and opened them to find a disgusting color and smell on the underside - truly unsafe food. And because the labeling programs are voluntary, there's nothing to keep a meat counter at a grocery from abusing the so-called system.
So in the end, the only thing you can really trust is your own judgement. My mantra is:
Buy products at your own risk,
Use your own judgement about quality and
Aggressively be willing to return products, request refunds or replacements.
Guidelines From WebMD
But I'm still unsure how long I should keep products after I buy them but before I use or freeze them. (Remember that freezing will negatively affect quality of almost all products and gets worse with longer freezing times).
One tip - have a Sharpie and blue masking tape in the kitchen to label storage containers or opened items. Write the date you opened on a strip of tape, or on the container. You can more confidently assess the product down the road if you do this.
So I found a good article on WebMD about food expiration dates - here's the link: Do Food Expiration Dates Matter? In summary, here's their advice:
- Purchase 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.
|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|
Source: WebMd. Used with permission.