You open the fridge, drag out the cottage cheese, check for fur, and if there isn't any, you say, "Honey? Will you sniff this?" This is not, however, the approved method of checking for freshness. The approved way lies in a voluntary system of labeling.
Yes, voluntary. The only items required by federal law to be labeled for expiration are infant formula and some baby foods; some states also mandate pulling dairy from store shelves on the expiration date.
Learn the Lingo of Expiration Dates
This brings us to terminology. The actual term "Expiration Date" refers to the last date a food should be eaten or used. Last means last -- proceed at your own risk.
Other, more commonly spotted terms are:
- "Sell by" date. The labeling "sell by" tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires. This is basically a guide for the retailer, so the store knows when to pull the item. This is not mandatory, so reach in back and get the freshest. The issue is quality of the item (freshness, taste, and consistency) rather than whether it is on the verge of spoiling. Paul VanLandingham, EdD, a senior faculty member at the Center for Food and Beverage Management of Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., tells WebMD the "sell by" date is the last day the item is at its highest level of quality, but it will still be edible for some time after.
- "Best if used by (or before)" date. This refers strictly to quality, not safety. This date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date. Sour cream, for instance, is already sour, but can have a zippier, fresh taste when freshly sour (if that's not an oxymoron!)
- "Born on" date. This is the date of manufacture and has been resurrected recently to date beer. Beer can go sub-par after three months. "It is affected by sun," VanLandingham says. The light can reactivate microorganisms in the beer. That's why you have to be especially careful with beer in clear bottles, as opposed to brown or green.
- "Guaranteed fresh" date. This usually refers to bakery items. They will still be edible after the date, but will not be at peak freshness.
- "Use by" date. This is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.
- "Pack" date. You will find this one on canned or packaged goods, as a rule, but it's tricky. In fact, it may be in code. It can be month-day-year-MMDDYY. Or the manufacturer could revert to the Julian calendar. January would then be 001-0031 and December 334-365. It gets even weirder than that.
How Long Are Foods OK to Eat?
If you are not up on your Julian calendar and dating seems sort of a hodgepodge, how about memorizing some basic rules?
- Milk. Usually fine until a week after the "Sell By" date.
- Eggs. OK for 3-5 weeks after you bring them home (assuming you bought them before the "sell by" date). VanLandingham says double-grade As will go down a grade in a week but still be perfectly edible.
- Poultry and seafood. Cook or freeze this within a day or two.
- Beef and pork. Cook or freeze within three to five days.
- Canned goods. Highly acidic foods like tomato sauce can keep 18 months or more. Low-acid foods like canned green beans are probably risk-free for up to five years. "You do not want to put cans in a hot place like a crawl space or garage," Peggy VanLaanen, EdD, RD, a professor of food and nutrition at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, tells WebMD. She suggests keeping canned and dry food at 50 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit in a dry, dark place. Humidity can be a factor in speeded-up deterioration. The FDA notes that taste, aroma, and appearance of food can change rapidly if the air conditioning fails in a home or warehouse. Obviously, cans bulging with bacteria growth should be discarded, no matter what the expiration date!
Food Safety Tips
Since product dates don't give you a true guide to safe use of a product, here are some other tips from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Services:
- Purchase the product before the date expires.
- If perishable, take the food home immediately after purchase and refrigerate it promptly. Freeze it if you can't use it within times recommended on the chart.
- Once a perishable product is frozen, it doesn't matter if the date expires because foods kept frozen continuously are safe indefinitely.
- Follow handling recommendations on product.
|Â||Storage Times After Purchase|
|Poultry||1 or 2 days|
|Beef, Veal, Pork, and Lamb||3 to 5 days|
|Ground Meat and Ground Poultry||1 or 2 days|
|Fresh Variety Meats (Liver, Tongue, Brain, Kidneys, Heart, Chitterlings)||1 or 2 days|
|Cured Ham, Cook-Before-Eating||5 to 7 days|
|Sausage from Pork, Beef or Turkey, Uncooked||1 or 2 days|
|Eggs||3 to 5 weeks|
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.
"One of the biggest mistakes consumers make is lag time," VanLaanen agrees. For details, she highly recommends Safe Home Food Storage, a Texas A&M book available from tcebookstore.org.
VanLandingham also warns that most fridges usually aren't holding at 41 degrees or less. "Don't forget recovery time," he says. That's the time it takes to recool after you stand there trying to find a cold beer or decide whether anyone will miss the last piece of cake.
Milk should be kept at 38 degrees, fish at 32 degrees. The drawers and shelves have different temperatures, thus the term "meat drawer."
VanLaanen urges consumers to scribble on their own date of purchase, even on canned goods.
Don't be too cautious. "Some people keep apples five days and go, "Oops, time to go,'" VanLandingham says. "They may still be in mint condition."
He recommends using your senses (this would be the "Honey, sniff this" thing) to decide if an item is fresh.
Oh, and that insufferable air-tight packaging? It has a use beyond building character in those attempting to remove it. "This can double shelf life," VanLandingham says. "The item will be good as the day it was packaged."
Star Lawrence is a medical journalist based in the Phoenix area.