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?
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.
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.”
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:
“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.
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.