When people find out that I am “Kitchenboy” they will ask questions hiding in the back of their mind regarding any kitchen related topic. It doesn’t matter that my main area of expertise is kitchen tools, gadgets and electrics, someone hears you are an “expert” and they want their question answered. A recent case in point is food freshness and their associated expiration dates.
Food freshness or expiration dates seem to create more confusion than they solve, and I have come to discover these dates don’t really mean much.
Let’s start with what is actually required by the federal government regarding the use of dates on food items.
From the FDA website:
Except for infant formula and some baby food, product dating is not generally required by Federal regulations. However, if a calendar date is used, it must express both the month and day of the month (and the year, in the case of shelf-stable and frozen products). If a calendar date is shown, immediately adjacent to the date must be a phrase explaining the meaning of that date such as “sell-by” or “use before.”
There is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States. Although dating of some foods is required by more than 20 states.
My first reaction was shock, particularly considering the extent to which the government regulates “proper” food cooking temperatures, calorie content and other nanny-like intrusions into the culinary scene. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the need for oversight in the area of food regulation, today more than ever, but there seems to be a lot of misplaced focus.
Most food consumed in the United States is produced in the industrialized machine of giant corporations. Generally, large corporations cannot be trusted to govern themselves regarding food freshness and safety. However, the use of food freshness or expiry dates and the lack of regulation surrounding them seems out of step with the current “mothering” of our elected officials.
Let’s look at the various types food freshness and expiration dates you will see on packages.
A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires. However, this does not mean that the food cannot be consumed after this date. According to the government, after purchase, you should freeze or use the food within a few days this date (more on that later).
Always purchase eggs before the “Sell-By” or “EXP” date on the carton. After the eggs reach home, refrigerate them in their original carton and place them in the coldest part of the refrigerator, not in the door. For best quality, use eggs within 3 to 5 weeks of the date of purchase. The “sell-by” date will usually expire during that length of time, but the eggs are perfectly safe to use.
Personally I have found that milk, while safe to drink, develops structural issues 7-10 days after being opened. This is particularly true when the milk I purchased was close to or at the sell-by date printed on the carton. This structural issue can adversely affect frothing for coffee drinks, sauces and yogurt making.
“Best if Used By/Before”
A “Best if Used By (or Before)” date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is NOT a purchase-by or safety date. You may also see wording like “Enjoy by” or “Savor By” listed on the product. These are simply advertising and marketing phrases meant to inspire increased consumption based on presumed food freshness.
In my opinion, this category needs to be reviewed by the federal government more than the others because no one really knows what it means. Retailers, afraid of legal action, remove products from their shelves when food freshness dates are past. Consumers uncertain what the date really means, throw out anything past the food freshness date. This creates unnecessary waste of food that is safe for consumption.
History indicates that beer companies were some of the first to use freshness dating. The original brewing or creation dates on beer were placed there to ensure that the consumer was drinking a product that had some maturity to it. At one point, after Prohibition, there were concerns about “green” beer on the market, so brewers used the date to let people know the beer was fresh but also properly aged.
Today, the food freshness dating means different things to different companies. We all know that potato chips, pretzels and cookies will become stale, but rice and dried mushrooms aren’t exactly going to be ruined by time on the shelf. Products like dried pasta can, if kept from excess moisture or humidity, last for years.
Ground, dried spices will lose their flavor essence over time, but will be useful for seasoning long after advertising and marketing departments would like you to believe. To maximize spice lifespan, whenever possible, buy whole spices and grind them yourself just before you need them. The flavor of just ground spice will be more intense, and whole spices will last for years, not months. Once opened ground spice has probably a year to 18 months of peak freshness before it should be replaced. There are exceptions, but let your nose be the guide. If the spice still has strong aromas, then use it, otherwise toss it out and buy new.
In general, federal guidance states that high-acid canned foods such as tomatoes, grapefruit and pineapple can be stored on your shelf 12 to 18 months; low-acid canned foods such as meat, poultry, fish and most vegetables will keep up to 5 years as long as the can remains in good condition and has been stored in a cool, clean, dry place.
All of this actual food freshness aside, there is another contributing factor to these dates. The business world defines the food industry as being a limited growth market, meaning a certain number of people can only consume a certain amount of food. To circumvent this problem, if a company can convince people to buy food more frequently, then profits can be sustained. One of the easiest ways to create new demand is by putting dates on products to inspire turn over. This is why I say we need to immediately review the use of food freshness dating and either put regulated, realistic dates on the packages or stop the practice all together.
A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product NOT the federal government. “Use-by” dates usually refer to best quality and are not safety dates. But even if the date expires during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality, if handled properly and kept at 40° F or below.
The government does recommend that if product has a “use-by” date, follow that date. Foods can develop an off odor, flavor or appearance due to “spoilage” bacteria. If a food has developed such characteristics, you should not use it for quality reasons.
“Closed or Coded dates”
“Closed or coded dates” are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer. Cans must exhibit a packing code to enable tracking of the product in interstate commerce. This enables manufacturers to rotate their stock, as well as to locate their products in the event of a recall.
These codes, which appear as a series of letters and/or numbers, might refer to the date or time of manufacture. They aren’t meant for the consumer to interpret as “use-by” or food freshness date. There is no resource which tells the consumer how to translate the codes into dates.
Cans may also display “open” or calendar dates; usually these are “best if used by” dates for peak quality.
Food Freshness Post-Purchase Storage
The only area where the government provides guidance or advice is the storage of food after purchase, which given the vagaries of the above information, doesn’t make a lot of sense. I won’t present every government table here, but just outline their assumed “logic” and mention a few specific items. To see the whole government write up, including storage guidelines/tips, go to http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/Food_Product_Dating/
The government breaks the storage tables into “Fresh or Uncooked Products” and “Processed Products Sealed at the Plant”. I assume fresh vegetables are not mentioned in the government tables because anyone with a sense of touch, sight and/or smell can determine when fruits and vegetables are OK to eat. I also assume that milk is not included in these use tables for a similar reason. However, according to the government, eggs are good for up to 5 weeks after purchase; so if one includes eggs in the table why not milk?
When I look at these guidelines, I find myself a bit confused. The times in the tables are confusing and illogical because the government recommended use/freeze dates are based on purchase dates, not the use-by or sell-by dates. For example, if I buy an uncooked chicken with a sell-by date of one week from the day I purchase it, the government says I must use or freeze that food within 2 days of putting it in my refrigerator. Oddly enough, the same chicken left at the market until its sell-by date, which in our example is one week out, is still allowed to stay in my refrigerator for 2-3 days after purchase. This means the same chicken is considered safe to eat for an additional 7-10 days. Hence, the confusion.
The stated government reasoning for such guidance can be assumed to be something like this, “Since product dates aren’t a guide for safe use of a product, how long can the consumer store the food and still use it at top quality?”
If you put on a “government wonk” hat, ope can rationalize that “given that these dates are unregulated and of no real value, we should direct people to consume or freeze food pretty quickly after they get the food home – just to be safe.” Wouldn’t a more reasoned approach be to regulate the dates and what they mean, THEN publish guidelines about home storage, knowing the dates have actual value?
The guidance for “Processed…Sealed at the Plant” foods have two categories – one regarding unopened packages and one after opening. As above, there is illogical reasoning at work here, particularly in regard to cured meats. I say these dates are illogical because it fails to take into account the type of packaging, such as vacuum sealed versus simple plastic wrap. A vacuum sealed product limits exposure to oxygen and bacteria, so the packaging guidelines should reflect this fact. Additionally, the policy doesn’t properly take into account that some prepared foods are, by their nature, already in a preserved state.
Frozen foods have separate guidance and most of the government information on freezing relates to meat. All frozen ground meat should be used within three months. Cuts of pork hold for six months; beef, lamb, veal, and venison can last 8-12 months. Poultry and other birds last about 12 months in the freezer.
Remember, if the food is frozen by the sell-by or use-by date, the printed dates are no longer valid. You should label frozen food to remind yourself how long it has been in the freezer. However, freezer storage dating is done for quality reasons only as frozen foods remain safe (almost) indefinitely. Additional note – freezer burn does not make food unsafe, it merely indicates the meat is dry in spots. It appears as grayish-brown leathery areas and is caused by air coming in contact with the surface of the food. Heavily freezer-burned foods may have to be discarded, again for quality reasons.
Freshness Date Summary
I was surprised by the lack of true government oversight regarding food freshness dates printed on packages and will take a much different view the next time I read about a corporate supermarket “scandal” involving product date manipulation. Technically, they aren’t breaking the law.
As I mentioned above, given all the regulatory intrusion into our food lives – much of which I don’t agree with – why isn’t the government getting involved in this aspect of food safety?
For a different view on this same issue, with more detailed, food specific advice, visit the folks at KitchenSanity.com .