So an article published on March 12th, 2008 in the Deseret Morning News caught my attention. The Deseret News tries to unravel the mysteries of "food expiration dates". For example, is that box of Bisquick in the back of your cabinet dated November 2007 still good?
One of the reasons for the mystery is because there is no uniform system of food dating, except for USDA-mandated standards for infant formula and some baby food. In addition, stores aren't legally required to pull food from the shelves once a "sell by" date has passed. In Alaska, Carr's will sell expired food, but they'll discount it and mark it prominently with a colored sticker so people who want to avoid buying expired food can easily do so.
According to the Deseret Morning News, there are four different classifications of food dating most often used by manufacturers and processors:
(1). "Sell by" tells the store how long to display the product for sale. For best quality, people should buy the product before this date expires, but it doesn't necessarily mean the product is bad once it reaches that date.
(2). "Best if used by (or before)" is recommended by the manufacturer for best flavor or quality. This is not a safety date, according to the USDA. If the date says March 11, 2008, and today is March 12, that doesn't automatically mean you have to toss it. The products, in general, are still safe to eat, but some consumers may detect changes in product flavor, color, taste or texture.
(3). "Use by" is the last date recommended to use the product, such as "Do not use after March 12, 2008." The date has been determined by the manufacturer.
(4). "Closed" or coded dates are packing numbers or dates, so that manufacturers know when and where the product was produced. This is helpful in the event of a recall. The product may be stamped with a date preceded by the letters "MFG." This tells you the date it was packed. You may have bought the product a month ago, but this date could tell you that it has been sitting in a warehouse or on a store shelf for several months.
Dr. Frost Steele, a Brigham Young University science professor, states that the manufacturers' dates on packages and canned goods are conservative and based more on quality than safety. He asserts that the quality deteriorates much sooner than safety will. But he urges people to toss out any cans or jars that are bulging, heavily dented, cracked, with broken seals, loose lids or any visible compromise with the packaging. Also immediately toss any cans or jars which spurt pressurized liquid after opening or whose contents give a foul odor, since this can be a sign of possible botulism, a tiny amount of which can be deadly.
And this advice squares with that provided in an MSNBC report dated October 17th, 2006. However, this report also addresses perishable and frozen foods at greater length. Meat, for example, might have a "sell by" date that is five days from now, but most of us keep our refrigerators at about 40 degrees — not 34 degrees, like we should — and therefore the meat that has a "sell by" date of five days from now may only last for two days in our home refrigerator.
Your own handling of perishable foods can affect the storage life as well. To maximize the storage life of perishables, choose them last when shopping and get them home as quicly as possible. Remember that if you put the milk in your cart and walk around the store for another 20 minutes, then drive home for 20 minutes, and then take another five minutes to unpack your groceries and refrigerate the products — you may well have diminished the shelf life of that milk by two to four days.
Should you give expired food to your local food bank rather than throw it out? The Utah Food Bank says "not so fast". "Our rule of thumb is, if you wouldn't eat it, we'd rather it not be donated," said Jessie Pugh, a Utah Food Bank spokesman. "If it's past the expiration (or 'use by') date, we can't use it. If it's a 'best if used by' date, we will accept it within a three-year window and look at the condition of the can." Call the local charity and ask first BEFORE bringing them expired food.
Other references of interest include a USDA Fact Sheet on food dating, as well as an October 2006 article in Business Week which discusses it within the context of a "spinach scare" from that time.