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Do Food Expiration Dates Really Matter?

Experts provide a guide to the variety of confusing 'freshness' dates on food.

When Do Other Vital Items Go Bad?

The FDA does require that drugs carry an expiration date. Alan Goldhammer, PhD, associate vice president for regulatory affairs of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), tells WebMD that safety, purity, and potency must be tested and established over time by drug manufacturers. If a drug says the expiration date is 18 months hence, it means these three qualities can only be guaranteed that long, assuming the drug is stored properly.

Some critics have accused drug manufacturers of hyping these dates to encourage more drug sales. Goldhammer implies that some drugs may be OK longer than noted, but the manufacturers have not done, say, a 10-year study of how long the drug is good. "They try to establish a reasonable date to allow for time in the supply chain and pharmacy shelves," he says.

The chemicals in drugs do break down and change over time, becoming more potent (or poisonous) or ineffective. "One of the worst places to store them," Goldhammer offers, "is in the medicine cabinet, which can be hot and humid. Consumers should not let drugs sit around. Why do you think most companies sell them a month or at most three months ahead of time?"

VanLandingham also notes that humidity can hurt drugs. "That's why they have cotton in them," he explains.

What about condoms, where a misjudgment could be disastrous? All condoms, the FDA says, have either an expiration or a manufacturing date. They should not be used beyond the expiration date -- more than five years after the date of manufacture.

The sweetener aspartame, another common item often found in sodas, does break down and become icky-tasting, so don't buy or drink old products containing it.

Stretching the Expiration Date Through Proper Storage

VanLandingham is picky about letting food get too hot. The "temperature danger zone" is between 41 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Food needing refrigeration should be kept below 41 degrees. On the loading dock, in the car, on the kitchen table, it should not be outside of that temperature for more than four hours total. You have no idea how long it may have been subjected to higher temperatures before you buy it, so you need to minimize the "standing" factor after you get it.

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