Food Safety: What do Expiration Dates Really Mean?

A little-known fact: there is no federal regulation that requires food companies to put any type of expiration date on food (except infant formula). Some states have rules that require dates on certain items—like milk—and many big companies put dates on everything so that they can ship products to those states without having to do anything special or different to the packaging.

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Importantly, the vast majority of these dates are related to food quality, not food safety. For example, a product may taste, smell, or feel fresher if it’s eaten by the date on the package—but the date won’t reflect whether the food might be contaminated with bacteria. Regardless of the date on the package itself, some items, such as deli meat, should be eaten or tossed within three days of purchase (for fresh-sliced) or three days of opening (for prepackaged) because the bacteria so commonly found on deli meat can continue growing to dangerous levels even under refrigeration as the days go on.

Here’s what dates on packages actually mean. A “sell-by” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. A “best if used by [or before]” date is recommended for best flavor or quality, but isn’t related to safety. And a “use-by” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality (as determined by the manufacturer of the product). As useful as those dates are, the way the product has been handled is at least as important. If it’s been properly refrigerated, a food should be safe to eat even after any of those dates have passed.

Without relying on the dates alone, there are other signs that food has passed its prime. Foods can develop an off-odor, flavor, or appearance as the days go by and spoilage bacteria (different from the sickening kind) grow. If the food smells or tastes off, you should skip it for quality reasons, even if you think it’s probably safe. But—and this is key—if foods are mishandled, bacteria can grow and cause foodborne illness even before the date on the package expires. For example, hot dogs taken to a picnic and left out in the heat for several hours are not safe to eat, even if they are within the package’s expiration date. Don’t forget that you can always freeze food before the expiration date if you don’t have time to prepare it but don’t want to either risk it or waste it.

Use or freeze homemade and restaurant leftovers containing meat or poultry, seafood, dairy, or eggs within four days.

 

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2 Replies to “Food Safety: What do Expiration Dates Really Mean?”

  1. As a long time grocery clerk in Colorado, I can tell you that expiration dates are required on everything including non-food items, such as soap and beauty products. It is even required on bottled water! Maybe not required by the federal govenment, but it definitely required here in CO! I do agree that many items can be used past their expiration date. We cannot sell or even donate out of date items, though.

  2. I’m disappointed with the quality/consistency of Ms. Klein’s advice. She says, “Regardless of the date on the package itself, some items, such as deli meat, should be eaten or tossed within three days of purchase (for fresh-sliced) or three days of opening (for prepackaged).” This is probably good advice. But in another paragraph she says, “If it’s been properly refrigerated, a food should be safe to eat even after any of [their expiration] dates have passed,” which contradicts the previously quoted statement. And in still another paragraph she says, “Don’t forget that you can always freeze food before the expiration date if you don’t have time to prepare it but don’t want to either risk it or waste it.”

    So is properly refrigerated food safe if consumed or frozen by an expiration date, or should one use the rule pointing to three days of purchase/opening. The reader cannot know.

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