Deep regret and guilt are feelings I experience every time I throw something away in my pantry or refrigerator that I have not quite exhausted. What stays? What goes? Does an expiration date really tell you the WHOLE story?
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), under the jurisdiction of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), manufacturers put dates on food products to let retail stores and consumers know how long their products are expected to be their best quality. Except for infant formula, product dating is not required by Federal regulations.
BEST apparently has many interpretations. Food items only need to be labeled in a manner that is truthful and not misleading and in compliance with FSIS regulations.
Many factors determine these quality dates. Additionally, manufacturers and retailers follow strict procedures in the manufacturing, distribution, and storage of food products. However, there is no strict rule to dictate what BEST practices need to be followed once the food leaves the distribution chain and enters, most specifically, our homes. Because of this, food product dating errs on the side of caution.
It has been suggested that date labeling on food products results in consumer confusion and can result in the extraordinary amount of waste at both the retail and consumer level (>30%). Thus, it is important that consumers understand the dates applied to food are for quality, not for safety. The USDA even recognizes that food products are safe to consume past the date on the label, and, regardless of the date, consumers should evaluate the quality of the food product prior to its consumption.
However, it is up to the consumer to understand the significance of product dates and handle food products appropriately.
- “Best if Used By/Before” date indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
- A“Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date.
- “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality (it is not a safety date except when used on infant formula).
- “Freeze-By”date indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
- Can codes are a type of closed dating which enables the tracking of product in interstate commerce. These codes also enable manufacturers to rotate their stock and locate their products in the event of a recall. Can codes appear as a series of letters and/or numbers and refer to the date the product was canned. The codes are not meant for the consumer to interpret as a “Best if Used By” date.
Canned goods must exhibit a code or the date of canning. Cans may also display “open” or calendar dates. Usually these are “Best if Used By” dates for peak quality. Discard cans that are dented, rusted, or swollen. High-acid canned foods (e.g. tomatoes and fruits) will keep their best quality for 12 to 18 months; low-acid canned foods (e.g. meats and vegetables) will keep for two to five years.
Additional information on food canning and the handling of canned foods may be found at Shelf-Stable Food Safety.
- Bar Codes on Food Packages are commonly referred to as Universal Product Codes (UPC) and are a type of code that appears on packages as black lines of varying widths above a series of numbers. The UPC is not required by regulation, but manufacturers print them on most product labels because scanners at supermarkets can “read” them quickly to record the price at checkout.
UPCs are also used by stores and manufacturers for inventory purposes and marketing information. When read by a computer, a UPC can reveal such specific information as the manufacturer’s name, product name, size of product, and price. The numbers are not used to identify recalled products.
- Dates on Egg Cartons can indicate either a “Sell-By” or “Expiration” (EXP) date. It is not a federal regulation, but may be required, as defined by the egg laws in the state where the eggs are marketed. Some state egg laws do not allow the use of a “sell-by” date.
Many eggs reach stores only a few days after the hen lays them. Egg cartons with the USDA grade shield on them must display the “pack date” (the day that the eggs were washed, graded, and placed in the carton). This number is a three-digit code that represents the consecutive day of the year starting with January 1 as 001 and ending with December 31 as 365. When a “sell-by” date appears on a carton bearing the USDA grade shield, the code date may not exceed 30 days from the date of pack.
In the United States, after purchasing eggs, it is recommended to refrigerate them in their original carton and place them in the coldest part of the refrigerator, not in the door due to loss of coolness from repeated opening of the door.
The restaurant industry standard, first-in, first-out (FIFO), is also a quick and easy way for the consumer to keep track of their food freshness. FIFO simply means to use food in order of freshness dates. Following the FIFO principle ensures foods with the shortest shelf-life get used first (a permanent marker can help, too).
Throwing something away takes little effort. However, knowing what to keep takes more than a discriminating eye and a keen sense of smell. The Kitchen Companion is a great downloadable resource and reference guide for consumers who are attempting to reduce their own kitchen waste without regret and guilt.
Learn how to be safe, not sorry, without the regret of being wasteful with food products in your home.