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Is It Safe to Eat Food After Its Expiration Date? By Dennis Switzer

A few years ago I volunteered at a food bank. My job was to sort various foodstuffs by type and also to check the “use by” or “best by” date on the food. What surprised me is that the food bank people advised that most food can be safely eaten long after it’s “use by” date and I was only to discard food that was months or years past its date (depending on whether it was canned or in other types of packages).

The food bank people are correct; the “use by”, “sell by,” or “best by” dates are not hard and fast cut-offs for food safety. This is good information to know as about 40% of the food supply in the U.S. goes to waste and a material portion of that is consumers discarding food after it’s “use by,” “best by” or “sell by” date. Related IFOD: We Waste A Lot of Food!

A key fact to know is that these expiration dates on food, other than infant formula, are not federally regulated and state regulations, where they exist, are inconsistent. Expiration dates are not a drop-dead date for the safety of the food but rather the manufacturer’s best guess for how long their product will be at peak quality. According to a nutritionist at the University of Washington, “the manufacturer has put the date on there to suggest the recommended shelf life to get the best flavor, color, or quality of the product. That’s based on their subjective opinion, not a specific safety standard.”

Thus, the expiration date on food is NOT RELATED TO FOOD SAFETY AT ALL.

Usually, food past its expiration date will still taste good and be perfectly safe. According to a food scientist at Penn State, “consumers need to understand that overall when manufacturers set their shelf life for products, they are being fairly conservative in the dating.”

Here are some helpful rules of thumb from WebMD about the safety of food and expiration dates:

• 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!

Experts also suggest that you use your senses. If the food looks good and smells good, its probably ok.

Finally, what are the differences between the various wording of dates on food? According to Consumer Reports, here’s what the different terms mean:

Best If Used By/Before. This guarantees when a product is of the best quality or flavor. For instance, a jar of salsa may not taste as fresh or crackers may be soft instead of crisp after this date. It’s not about safety.

Sell By. This is the date set by manufacturers to tell retailers when to remove a product from shelves. The goal is to ensure that consumers have products at their best quality, which can be several days to several weeks, depending on the item. For instance, milk, assuming proper refrigeration, should last five to seven days past its sell-by date before turning sour.

Use By. This is the last date that guarantees the best quality of a product. This is also not a safety date except when used on infant formula.

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