by Tammy Taylor~
Did you know the U.S.D.A estimates 30% (I’ve even heard 40%) of the food in the United States is wasted? Wow. Shocking, right? Now some of that waste happens right in the fields, problems with harvesting machinery & such. Other waste may be a result of that produce being shaped or sized imperfectly. Oftentimes a store refuses to accept perfectly good but visually imperfect produce from farmers. They want only perfection to sell to their customers. (I absolutely hate this!) And some waste can be attributed to such things as restaurants serving too much food, or even that apple being forgotten in the back of your fridge until it’s no longer appealing.
But often, food waste is a result of consumers being confused about product date labels.
You may look at a box of mac-&-cheese and notice the date stamped on the box has passed. But it can be confusing. Use-by date, Sell-By Date, Best-By Date – what does it all mean???
Years ago I referred to those dates as ‘expiration dates’. I think most folks did back then. But I assumed if the food was expired, it was no longer safe to eat. As much as I hated to waste food, I was afraid to make my family sick. So I’d sigh and toss it away. Then I started researching it further.
Research Reputable Sources
Now I realize that just because it’s on the internet doesn’t make it true, y’all! It’s important to do your own research and use reputable sources. You want to research sites that report fact, not opinion. So I went directly to the U.S.D.A. site to check it out.
What I read on their site was a relief. And I must say I was surprised to learn those dates aren’t placed there by the U.S.D.A. at all! Heck product dating isn’t even required by them. That’s because those dates have no bearing whatsoever on whether or not a product is safe to eat. It’s simply a freshness gauge, placed on the product by the manufacturers themselves. The U.S.D.A. site states those dates are not an indicator of food safety.
For me this was game-changing info!
What Happens After That Date?
So you might see a date stamped on that box of jello, cake mix or can of beans and question the contents. You might wonder if it’s ‘out of date‘, can you still safely eat it?
Again, the dates on that box of cake mix are placed there by the manufacturers as a gauge of when you can expect the highest quality from that product. After the date on the package, the baking powder in that cake mix may start to lose some of its punch for instance. Or if much time has passed, perhaps the ingredients could even begin to taste stale. But dangerous? Pffft.
According to the U.S.D.A.:
Are Dates for Food Safety or Quality?
Manufacturers provide dating to help consumers and retailers decide when food is of best quality. Except for infant formula, dates are not an indicator of the product’s safety and are not required by Federal law.
What Date-Labeling Phrases are Used?
There are no uniform or universally accepted descriptions used on food labels for open dating in the United States. As a result, there are a wide variety of phrases used on labels to describe quality dates.
Examples of commonly used phrases:
- A “Best if Used By/Before” 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.
- A “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 for when used on infant formula
Packaging Damage & Spoilage
Now having said that, it’s important to note that if the packaging has been damaged, actual spoilage could certainly occur! I’ve always heard that if a can is dented more than the depth of your index finger, maybe you need to investigate further. If the dent on a can causes an actual crease in the edges, it’s possible the contents are compromised. So inspect the packing first. If the package is heavily damaged, the can is swollen or the contents just don’t look or smell right, I’ll toss it. Better safe than sorry!
But in the Taylor Household I know the dates on packages of food are only freshness suggestions. I realize they’re put there by manufacturers who have two goals: 1) To make sure you have the best experience possible when consuming their product, and 2) hopefully get you to buy that product again.
(I wonder if that gives them incentive to make that ‘Use By‘ date an even shorter time frame to get you to buy it more frequently? Hummmm…)
Anyway, I’m certainly not a doctor and would never suggest you eat food deemed unsafe. But it’s always better to have the correct information under your belt when making these decisions for yourself.
An informed decision could have you wasting less perfectly good food due to a misunderstanding of the purpose of that date on the label!
So be sure to do your research and decide for yourselves. Helpful links are included below.
Meat & Poultry Food Safety Questions?
- Call the USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline toll-free at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854)
(The Hotline is open year-round and can be reached from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Eastern Time) Monday through Friday.)
- E-mail questions to MPHotline@usda.gov.
- Consumers with food safety questions can also “Ask Karen,” the FSIS virtual representative. Available 24/7 at AskKaren.gov