7 Things You Should Know About Food Expiration Dates

How many of us have conducted a quick sniff test before deciding to consume recently expired food? Do food expiration dates really matter? The fact is that these expiration dates mean very little and can be misleading. There’s also no uniformity in their accuracy for freshness and quality. The lack of consistent standards in labeling expiration dates may open up room for interpretation but also confuse some consumers, who end up throwing away all suspected spoiled food. Here are some things every smart shopper should know about food expiration dates:

  1. Expiration dates are not required by law

    Product dating is generally not required by federal regulations. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), only 20 states require an expiration label. Instead, “open dating” is much more common, which simply stamps a calendar date (as opposed to a code) to help distributors determine how long they have to sell the product. It is not considered a safety date but merely a suggestion of best quality. The only items protected under federal law to be labeled for safety concerns are infant formula and some baby foods in various states.

  2. What “Sell by” means:

    The “sell by” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale before the item should be pulled. Consumers should buy the product before the date expires for optimal quality (freshness, consistency, taste.) The date does not refer to any safety measures or state of spoil. According to Paul VanLandingham, a senior faculty professor at the Center for Food and Beverage Management of Johnson & Wales University, the “sell by” date refers to the last day an item is at its highest level of assured quality; it should be edible for some time after the date as well. Sometimes grocery stores will discount the closer the “sell by” date approaches in an effort to clear their shelves and stock up on the next batch of goods.

  3. What “Use by” means:

    “Use by” and “Best if used by” are also labels that strictly refer to the quality, not safety, of the product. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product as a suggestion of optimal freshness, but can fluctuate according to the type of product. Some can last longer than the “use by” date (canned goods stored at optimal temperatures in the dark) while higher-acid products like canned pineapples and tomato sauce can have a shorter shelf life. The FDA notes that taste, aromas, and appearance of food can change rapidly if stored in hot, humid conditions, even for canned goods. Once cans or other containers in which foods are stored start to bulge, discard these items immediately no matter what the expiration date is.

  4. Frozen foods are indefinitely safe

    Since freezing foods at or below 0 °F stops bacteria growth and spoilage, foods that have been frozen are safe to eat past expiration dates, as long as the product is frozen before the “freeze by” date. Although old frozen food may have freezer burn and loss of flavor and freshness, it’s still deemed safe to eat. However, if you completely thaw certain products (meats and ice-cream), they may not be as safe to eat, as harmful bacteria may develop. Keep foods you know are going to be in the freezer for a long time in air-proof freezer bags to prevent freezer burn and dryness. Generally, raw meats, poultry, and seafood freeze better than after they’ve been cooked.

  5. Drug safety after the expiration date

    Some drugs have more than one expiration date: the manufacturer’s date and the drug store’s date. These two dates don’t always match up, causing great confusion. Which date is correct? The truth is drugs stored at ideal conditions last longer than one year after the date of sale. Many state pharmacy boards, though, require that drugs get labeled with a one-year expiration date from the purchase date, just as a strict safety precaution. The manufacturer’s date involves some testing and research to see how long the medicine can stay at its most potent state under high heat and humid conditions (like the bathroom cabinet). These dates can be up to two years later than the drug store date. The bottom line is: there’s really no serious side effect with taking outdated drugs. You may experience heartburn or a light headache, but by no means a life threatening condition.

  6. Bacteria threat

    Growth of bacteria is the main concern about the shelf life of poultry and fish. If improperly stored, bacteria can double within 20 to 30 minutes, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Even though millions of bacteria cells may form in as little as four hours, keep in mind that it only takes as few as 10 E. coli bacteria to make you sick. Since bacteria thrive in protein-rich foods, be sure to store meat, eggs, dairy products, and seafood in the fridge. Leaving these foods out for more than two hours (even prior to cooking) can cause bacteria to multiply to a harmful level, making your food unsafe to eat regardless of expiration date.

  7. Dating infant formula

    The FDA inspects and requires a “use-by” date for all infant formula products. Since the formula can separate and clog the nipple if stored for too long, strict safety standards are monitored for quality assurance. Do not buy or use baby formula after its “use by” date. Also check the bottle or container that the formula is in for signs of contamination, dents, and leaks.