The Trash Blog

Use-by Dates on Food

Have you ever pulled an overlooked jar of salsa from the back of your fridge, noted the weeks-past best-by date, studied the crusty stuff around the lid, smelled the still-tasty-looking salsa in the lower half of the jar, and hesitated, wondering if you are about to go down a path that ends in a all-night vomit session in the bathroom?

These pickles

These pickles have a “best-by” date that is more than a year from when we bought them. I guess they will lose some of their crunchiness next year, but the date doesn’t really give me any information about when they are no longer safe to eat.

I have a very strong dislike of barfing. This means that I am pretty cautious when it comes to use-by dates. The food may smell fine, it may look delicious, but if it’s past the date…I’ve got a formidable mental wall between the food and my mouth. Often, I feel that my sole protection is the barley legible, often cryptic dates printed on the package.

These olives

These olives also have a “best-by” date, one that is even further out in the future. I’m not sure why the olives will no longer be at their best in November of 2017, but again, if I find this can in my shelf in 2018, I’m going to wager that it is still healthy to consume its contents.

As Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland, says “In American retailing, our complex status quo includes terms such as ‘sell by,’ sell or freeze by,’ display until,’ ‘use by,’ ‘use or freeze by,’ ‘enjoy by,’ ‘best by’ and ‘best before.’ I study food waste and it even confuses me from time to time.” Bloom also points out, “Infant formula and some baby foods are the only items required by federal regulations to carry a ‘best-before’ date.”

This chicken

This chicken has a “sell-by” date which suggests to the grocer that he should try to move the product by June 11. This date is absolutely useless to me. Unless I am very familiar with the store, it doesn’t tell me when the chicken was slaughtered, when it was packed, when it arrived at the store, or when it got put on the shelf.

So what’s the deal? Do you end up vomiting the night away if you do not heed the dates? In 2013 the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) produced “The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America,” stating:

This ketchup

This ketchup repeats the “best-by” date mantra that was most common among the food in my fridge. But you will notice that the date is also pretty far afield. How is a date like this helpful?

“All those dates on food products — sell by, use by, best before — almost none of those dates indicate the safety of food, and generally speaking, they’re not regulated in the way many people believe. The current system of expiration dates misleads consumers to believe they must discard food in order to protect their own safety. In fact, the dates are only suggestions by the manufacturer for when the food is at its peak quality, not when it is unsafe to eat.”

It’s pretty sure that the general confusion about food-date labeling leads to a lot of waste. The NRDC report surmised that “the average household is discarding $275-455 per year of good food because of confusion over date labels.

This yeast

This yeast doesn’t even have a label to go with its date, just the cryptic May 11 2015. Should I consider it toxic at that point? Does it simply lose some of its yeastiness?

The best rule I’ve been able to come up with from my research on the topic is to trust your nose more than manufacturer’s dates. If it smells off, it probably is; otherwise, give it a taste. However, if the rule of smell is too casual for you, perhaps you should check out StillTasty.com, where they have an excellent guide to the shelf-life and storage conditions of most foods.

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This entry was written by Philip and published on June 9, 2014 at 2:53 pm. It’s filed under Food Waste, Laws and Regulations, Organics, Packaging and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

2 thoughts on “Use-by Dates on Food

  1. Catherine on said:

    Thanks! Helpful- I’ve wondered about.

  2. Uncle Chris on said:

    It has taken three years; however, I have emptied both my pantry and my refrigerator of all things that will likely reach their expiration dates. This has been accomplished by careful adjustment of my diet to include many of those foods that were seldom used, giving away food (mostly soups) to friends who were likely more interested in them that I was, and throwing away a few things that neither I nor my friends were likely to eat.

    Now, my refrigerator is likely to include only milk, bread, and lunch meat; and my pantry is likely only to include cereal and peanut butter. For the first time, I feel at one with the Trash Blog.

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