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Food Expiration Date: Science or Suggestion?

At some point, we’ve all looked at the expiration date on a container and wondered if the food is still safe to eat. “Use by” and “sell by” dates are found stamped on almost everything in your refrigerator and pantry. But what do those dates mean and is the food still edible once that day has passed?

What the Expiration Date Tells You

Before the development and widespread availability of processed foods, our senses — taste, sight, smell and touch — determined freshness. Foods were purchased seasonally and locally and rarely sat longer than a week in the refrigerator or cabinet. But as lifestyles moved toward convenience, and larger farming production shifted to nationwide distribution, the voluntary practice of open dating – putting expiration dates on food packages -- began.

The United States doesn’t have a universally accepted system for this process, which can be confusing for consumers. That confusion, and fear over expired food, is the largest reason for food waste, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Over 30 percent of food thrown away is still safe to eat.

The concept behind putting expiration dates on food is to help consumers and retailers decide when food is at its best quality. With the exception of “use-by” dating for infant formula, these dates aren’t indicators of the product’s safety, and they’re not required by law.  

What food labels mean:

  • "Best if Used By/Before" date -- Indicates when a product will have the best flavor or quality.  

  • "Sell-By" date – Communicates to the retailer how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. 

  • “Freeze-By” date – Indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. 

  • Closed dating – Communicates to a retailer the date a product was processed.

The Real Source of Food-Borne Illness 

Most food-poisoning is the result of bacteria or virus contamination based on how an item was handled, stored or cooked, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

While there are certain foods, such as meat and animal products (eggs, milk, poultry, shellfish) and even fresh vegetables that are particularly susceptible to germs or infection, any food can potentially be to blame if there is cross-contamination — meaning, if a food comes in contact with another contaminated food or surface.

Mild symptoms of food poisoning include vomiting, fever, diarrhea and dehydration, but severe cases can lead to kidney failure, brain damage and even death. The most common infections include:

  • Salmonella -- Found primarily in unpasteurized raw or undercooked eggs, it is avoided by refrigerating eggs below 40 degrees F or cooking them to an internal temperature of 160 degrees or higher. 

  • Listeria - Typically found in meats or dairy products, it is caused from ingesting a bacteria found in soil, water and manure used in fertilization. Pregnant women are particularly susceptible to complications from infection. Pasteurization and safe food handling during preparation greatly reduces risk.

  • Escherichia coli (E.coli) – A bacteria found in both human and animal intestinal tracts. Contracted by eating undercooked meats, it also can be passed person to person through contact. Prevention is as simple as thoroughly washing hands, counters, cutting boards and utensils after touching raw meat.

Use Expiration Dates as Guideline

Use the stamped-on dates as guidelines for when your food is at its peak and check, which offers best practices for food safety — as well as an accompanying FoodKeeper app, which helps you store food properly so that it stays fresh longer.

Don’t throw away those canned goods or dairy products just because they’re a few days past their prime. With a little planning and a pinch of common sense, you can stretch your grocery budget and still enjoy delicious, and safe, home-cooked meals.


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