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Should you throw away food after the expiration date?

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We can’t argue with playing it safe when it comes to perishables, but it’s still important to be aware that not all date labels are created equal. 

We’re a wasteful species, but as the saying goes, “knowledge is power.” Do you know the difference between a “best if used by” and a “use-by” label? Understanding the differences between expiration labels could help reduce the enormous amount of food we waste as consumers or retailers.

According to the USDA, about 30 percent of the total food supply goes to the landfill. Product dating is partly to blame, as consumers are confused by the labels or stamps they see on packaging. Those dates are actually there for quality and not for safety.

Laws don't require expiration dates

While we’d like to think everything involving our food is regulated, the law surprisingly does not require product dating except for infant formula. For meat, poultry and egg products, it’s optional to supply a date, and many manufacturers do so to help consumers and retailers decide when food is of best quality, not when the food is unsafe for consumption.

In December, Delicious Living asked readers whether they read and obey expiration dates on food. While the majority said it depends on the type of food, 30 percent said they throw food away when it’s past the expiration date.

What do the labels mean?

We can’t argue with playing it safe when it comes to perishables, but it’s still important to be aware that not all date labels are created equal. Here’s a breakdown, according to the USDA:

  • A "Best if Used By/Before" indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • A "Sell-By" date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date.
  • A "Use-By" date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula.

Generally, if the date passes during home storage, a product should still be safe and wholesome if handled properly until spoilage is evident. This means, until you start noticing an odor, flavor or texture due to naturally occurring spoilage bacteria, it should be OK to consume the food.

Signs of bad food

Here’s a bit of science about what exactly happens when food is nearing the end of its lifecycle, according to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service:

“Microorganisms such as molds, yeasts, and bacteria can multiply and cause food to spoil. Viruses are not capable of growing in food and do not cause spoilage. There are two types of bacteria that can be found on food: pathogenic bacteria, which cause foodborne illness, and spoilage bacteria, which cause foods to deteriorate and develop unpleasant characteristics such as an undesirable taste or odor making the food not wholesome, but do not cause illness. When spoilage bacteria have nutrients (food), moisture, time, and favorable temperatures, these conditions will allow the bacteria to grow rapidly and affect the quality of the food. Food spoilage can occur much faster if it is not stored or handled properly. A change in the color of meat or poultry is not an indicator of spoilage.”

If you still insist on being completely aware of how long your eggs have been sitting in that carton, keep this example in mind: Egg cartons with the USDA grade shield on them must display the "pack date" (the day that the eggs were washed, graded, and placed in the carton). This number is a three-digit code that represents the consecutive day of the year starting with January 1 as 001 and ending with December 31 as 365. When a "sell-by" date appears on a carton bearing the USDA grade shield, the code date may not exceed 30 days from the date of pack.

Happy shopping!

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