September 14, 2010

Food Expiration Dates - What do They Mean?

Little while ago I ran across this article about the use-by or sell-by dates on foods.

The article talks about what sell-by dates and use-by dates for foods really mean.  First of all the use-by date and sell-by dates are not explicitly some sort of threshold after which the food is 'bad'.   Generally the dates mean when the food is expected to start to lose its quality and/or when the food should be removed from the store shelves due to being past its prime.   Food past the sell by or use by dates are quite often perfectly fine and safe to eat.   The article cites examples of common foods, including:

Milk :  Will remain safe to drink for about a week after sell-by date.

Eggs : Should last at least 3-5 weeks after sell by date.

Generally I've simply thrown out foods once I notice they are past the use-by or sell-by dates.   Sometimes it depends on the food and I'm more likely to throw out eggs or meat that is expired than something less perishable like bread or ice cream.

But for some items I simply ignore the dates.  Good example is soft drinks.  Have you noticed that soft drinks now have a use-by date on them?    This is a relatively new invention of the beverage industry and frankly in my mind the expiration date on a soft drink is virtually meaningless as far as food safety.   I don't even know exactly how soft drinks would go "bad" over time.   They may lose their carbonation and "go flat" over time but that just makes the taste a little different and I also understand that the artificial sweetener in diet soda start to lose their luster over time. 

The article also points to the site Shelf Life for more information on how long various items last.   There you can look up various foods to find the basic shelf life.

Of course it should go without saying that if food smells bad or looks like it is contaminated in any way then you are best to throw it no matter the shelf life or use by or sell by dates on the packaging.   This is an area that I would err on the side of caution.   You can always buy more food and this is not an area to be a cheapskate.   Of course if there is nothing wrong with the food and it still has time on its shelf life then there is no reason to throw it out either.

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