The following are codes or dates that you can expect to find on certain food products, along with a brief explanation provided by the USDA.
Types of Dates:
- A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires
- A “Best if Used By (or before)” date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date
- 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
- “Closed or coded dates” are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer (USDA, 2015)
Some 20 states require dating of food while others have no specific laws. The USDA does not specifically require dating on foods with the exception of baby foods/formula.
“Use-by” dates usually refer to best quality and are not safety dates.
Is Dating Required By Federal Law?
“Except for infant formula, product dating is not generally required by Federal regulations” (USDA, 2015).
Baby food, more specifically baby formula should not be consumed past the “use by” date.
Therefore, the question is can you eat food past the dates stamped on a food product. Well some you can and some you cannot, how’s that for specificity. It is obvious some fresh foods cannot be eaten if they have been lounging in the refrigerator for several weeks.
On the other hand, the dates on the packaging are recommendations, but are not necessarily chiseled in stone, and as stated earlier they are not food safety dates. Use your nose and eyes as well as the dates on the packaging when it comes to fresh products or packaged products that require refrigeration.
Fresh meats will of course spoil after a couple days left in temperatures above freezing and the higher the temperature the faster the meats or other fresh products will begin to decompose. Cooked meats can be stored up to four days in refrigeration.
Eggs for example, are edible for up to five weeks after purchase if purchased before the use by date and stored in your refrigerator. Keep fresh eggs as close to the back of the refrigerator as possible. Most refrigerators are cooler in the back furthest from the door.
Test Your Eggs
A bacterium creates gases as it breeds and grows and too much bacteria in an egg will cause it to float (become buoyant) because of the gases. Draw a bowl of tap water and place the egg (s) in the water. If any float do not eat them obviously.
Some Recommendations for Storage
- Fresh chicken should not be consumed if it has been thawed in the refrigerator for longer than two days
- Beef, pork, and lamb can be stored thawed in the refrigerator up to five days and still be considered safe to eat
- Ground fresh chicken and beef is good for two days thawed and under refrigeration
- Ground fresh pork or turkey two days under refrigeration
- Cured products such as ham purchased from a grocery store is up to five days
Certain cured or dried products can have an extended shelf life. However, much depends on the curing process and the level of expertise that went into the process. Check any dried or cured products for evidence of deterioration, mold, bad smell, or taste.
Processed fresh foods/meats such as deli sandwich meat, hot dogs, and sausages if left unfrozen past the use by date can encourage the growth of the bacteria listeria, which causes the infection listeriosis.
Highly acidic foods such as tomatoes are generally of good quality up to 18 months. This does not mean you cannot eat the product after 18 months, but you can expect some texture and flavor deterioration after this point. Low acidic foods such as green beans are considered stable for five years or longer.
Any canned product that shows swelling or bulging should be discarded. Swelling can mean a bacterium is growing in the can and this could cause sickness or worse if consumed. Glass canning jars can burst if a bacterium begins to grow.
Where you store your canned products can make a difference, so hot areas like attics or garages can reduce the stability of canned products. Fifty to 70° F is the ideal storage temperature for canned products. If stored in this temperature range the shelf life can be six years or more.
In most cases, you can tell if fresh meat is spoiled by the smell and color of the product. Fruits and vegetables will show obvious signs of spoilage as well.
Foods like pasta, white rice, and most hard grain products with the exception of brown rice is somewhere around 12 years plus and even longer if stored at a constant 70° F or slightly lower. Brown rice is shelf stable for up to six months, and can be stored up to 12 months under refrigeration and up to 18 months in the freezer.
The reduced shelf life of brown rice is due to the oils that will oxidize and go rancid. Weevils will infest any grain products so package to prevent infestation.
Sugar, salt, and honey are considered shelf stable indefinably as long as stored properly.
Flour is shelf stable for 5 years plus if stored in a sealed container. Flour can last longer if stored in an oxygen free environment however.
Frozen foods with the exception of frozen meats can be frozen for years. Meats will begin to lose flavor and texture, and there will be some deterioration after a certain period. Much depends on the packing method before freezing however.
Grounds meats are considered stable between two and four months in the freezer and this includes processed lunch meats. Steaks and whole roasts according to foodsafety.gov are good for six months up to a year in the freezer.
Vacuum sealing products will help to extend the shelf life of many frozen foods and certain other fresh products when stored in the refrigerator. Vacuum seal hard and soft cheeses, for example, to extend the shelf life while under refrigeration.
Foodsafety.gov. (n.d.). Retrieved 2015, from http://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/charts/storagetimes.html
USDA. (2015). Retrieved 2015, from http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/wcm/connect/fsis-content/internet/main/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/food-labeling/food-product-dating/food-product-dating