We’ve all been there before, staring at the sell-by-date on a gallon of milk or orange juice. Heck, maybe you’ve even encountered a product in the supermarket a few days or weeks past it’s prime. While we may be quick to dismiss the freshness of these products in public, at home we may be more hesitant. Is there really any harm in using a cup of milk a day or two past its sell-by-date?
It’s actually a bit more complicated than that.
According to the USDA, it is the manufacturer's responsibility to determine the ideal shelf life of its food products. Prior to shipping, they take certain factors into consideration such as the temperature in which the food will be refrigerated at, the type of packaging in which the food will be contained in, and even the properties of the food itself (as it could contain ingredients that could prolong shelf life).
Food dating is separated into two categories: open dating and closed dating. Open dating, which applies to meat, eggs, and dairy products, is used to determine how long a food product will be at optimal quality -- not necessarily an expiration date. Closed dating, on the other hand, applies to non-perishable food items, and the code on the packaging is used to indicate the date the product was produced.
While there are no universally recognized terms used to categorize various types of open dating, there are three widely used terms:
If a product is labeled “Best if Used By/Before” it is suggested that the product should be used before the date listed on the packaging as the food will be at optimal quality and will be more flavorful if consumed by this date. It is not an indicator of food safety.
The “Sell By” date is used by retailers to indicate how long they should leave an item for display. It is predominately used for inventory management and is not an indicator of food safety.
The “Use By” date is the last date of recommended use before the product’s quality declines.*
Generally speaking, if food is stored properly, it’ll remain fresh past its sell-by-date. Food pantries and charitable organizations gladly accept food nearing or past its expiration date. However, such items are subjected to scrutiny before becoming available for consumption.
While you may be exhaling while reading this information, if your product shows tell-tale signs of spoilage, don’t ignore them! Most people are aware that bacteria and fungi can fester in poorly-stored food products; if you notice that certain foods are beginning to smell funny or changing in texture or color, it is best to throw the product out to avoid foodborne illnesses.
So what else can you, reader, do at home?
Be smart when purchasing food. Sell-by-dates allot consumers a window in which they can prepare food without decreasing food quality. At their most extreme, they can be used as a rough indicator for when food will go bad but not a firm date. This is especially true in the case of non-perishable items that are meant to last for much longer than perishable food products.
The more you know, the more you can avoid disposing perfectly good food and make the most out of your grocery sprees.
*Infant formula is the only product that must be used prior to its sell-by-date as it loses nutritional value immediately after its opened.