Here’s What You Need to Know About Food Expiration Dates

source: Jeffery Holmes

Have you ever glanced at that little date on your food packaging and wondered if it’s time to toss out that carton of milk or that pack of chicken? It turns out that those “expiration” dates might not be as crucial as we’ve been led to believe. 

Understanding Expiration Labels

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) wants you to know that food expiration dates are not the strict deadlines they might appear to be. Instead of being indicators of food safety, these dates are more about maintaining food quality. So, before you hastily throw away that container of yogurt just because it’s a day past its “Best if Used By” date, pause for a moment and consider the bigger picture.

Types of Expiration Dates

You’ve probably encountered a variety of terms on your food packages, such as “Best if Used By,” “Use By,” and “Sell By.” These labels are often confusing, leading us to believe that once a certain date has passed, the food is automatically unsafe to eat. In reality, these labels are more about when the food is at its peak quality – that is, when it tastes and looks its best. The food might still be perfectly safe to consume even after these dates have come and gone. “Best if Used By” indicates the date when the food is at its highest quality and flavor. “Use By” suggests the last date recommended for consuming the product to ensure its best quality. “Sell By” is intended for retailers, guiding them on how long to display the product for sale.

source: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Reducing Food Waste

It’s alarming to learn that around 30% of the food produced in America goes to waste each year. One of the culprits behind this staggering statistic is our tendency to rely heavily on expiration dates. We throw away food that could still be enjoyed, contributing not only to our personal budget strains but also to environmental issues.

So, just how long can you keep some common foods after their so-called expiration dates?

Eggs: Did you know that eggs can be safe to eat for up to three to five weeks after purchase? To test their freshness, place them in a bowl of water. If they sink, they’re still good; if they float, it’s time to bid them adieu.

Chicken and Meat: These can last in the refrigerator for a day or two after the “Sell By” date, but if you’re planning to keep them longer, freezing is your best option.

Milk: Milk can often remain drinkable for about a week after the “Best if Used By” date, as long as it doesn’t exhibit off-putting odors or curdling.

Rice and Pasta: Dry staples like rice and pasta can last indefinitely as long as they are stored in a cool, dry place. According to some studies, rice can last 4-5 years. 

Canned Food: Canned goods are particularly resilient. They can remain safe to eat as long as the cans are in good condition – no dents, rust, or swelling.

Frozen Food: If stored at 0°F (-18°C) or lower, frozen food can essentially remain safe to eat indefinitely. However, over time, the quality might deteriorate.

source: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Detecting Spoilage

It’s important to mention that while many foods are safe to eat past their expiration dates, there are signs you should never ignore when evaluating food for consumption. Mold, foul odors, strange textures, and off-putting flavors are all indicators that a food item has gone bad. Trust your senses – they’re often more reliable than a date printed on a package.

Preventing Food Waste

The key to reducing food waste lies in proper storage. Keep your refrigerator at or below 40°F (4°C) and your freezer at 0°F (-18°C). Additionally, store foods in airtight containers to prevent moisture and bacteria from compromising their quality.

It’s time to rethink our approach to food expiration dates. While they provide helpful guidance, they shouldn’t be treated as strict rules. By understanding the differences between various date labels and using our senses to assess food freshness, we can significantly cut down on food waste. So, next time you’re tempted to toss out that jar of condiments just because it’s a day past its “Use By” date, remember that it might still have a lot to offer – both in taste and in reducing your ecological footprint.