Asking for a Friend: Are ‘Expiration Dates’ Just Totally Bogus?

Photo: Getty Images/Obradovic
There's no denying that food waste is a major problem. Thirty to 40 percent of food in the U.S. goes to landfills, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. For anyone who cares even just a little about sustainability, it's a sobering statistic. One major grocery chain in the UK has even started selling expired dried food at a discount in an effort to cut down on waste.

Eating expired food would certainly lead to less food waste (because come on, some of those dates just seem so random!), but is it safe? After all, I'm definitely not into the whole idea of salmonella. And while we're on the subject, what is the difference between "sell by," "best by," and all those other terms that are used for expiration dates? I called up food safety expert Jeff Nelken for answers.

First, Nelken gave me a little history lesson. "Forty years ago, companies got together and had consumers answer questions about their products. They would try a food when it was three days old, five days old, seven days old, and so forth," he explains. "They did this to find out when consumers started to think the quality started to go." Taste, appearance, odor, and texture all played a part, and companies used the intel to determine the best-by dates for their products, which indicates that it's still safe to eat, but might not taste as fresh as before the date.

Ultimately, there are a lot of different terms for "expiration" dates that might pop up on a food label:

  • Best if used by/Best before: According to the USDA, this means that the product will be of best quality or flavor by the printed date. It does not have to do with food safety. "Foods not exhibiting signs of spoilage should be wholesome and may be sold, purchased, donated and consumed beyond the labeled 'Best if Used By' date," says the USDA.
  • Use by: This means that this is the last date recommended to eat the product to ensure its quality. This isn't a safety thing except in the case of infant formula. "Baby formula is very delicate and you really do want to follow the expiration date for that," Nelken says.
  • Freeze by: The date a product should be frozen by to ensure the best quality. This again doesn't have to do with food safety.
  • Sell by: This date tells a store how long they should keep a food item on their shelves. This is not associated with safety; per the USDA, it's more about inventory.

None of these dates, Nelken says, are strict "do not pass" zones—and the date on the packaging doesn't automatically mean that a food has spoiled. Instead, "it's time to throw food away when it's undergone a noticeable change," he says. "When you touch it, does it feel slimy? Visually, is there mold? Have there been any weird color or texture changes?" This, he says, is what to keep in mind for everything—from meat and dairy to produce and bread—and are a better indication than reading a date on the packaging.

Also filed under common food questions: Is gluten as bad for you as people say? This vid has all the answers: 

So what are some good rules of thumb? Don't mess around with expired dairy and meat. (Raw meat lasts between one to five days in the fridge, while cooked meat is good for three to four days. Milk can last for seven days or longer—just do a sniff test before you drink past the sell-by date.) Leftovers are safe to eat up to three to four days after putting them in the fridge. Meanwhile, most pantry goods (like honey) can last indefinitely if stored in a cool, dry place. Similarly, while the flavor and quality of food might get less appealing the longer it's in the freezer (thanks, freezer burn!), experts generally agree that frozen food is pretty much always safe to eat. Again, focus less on the date and more on what your senses are telling you. If something feels off (looking at you, funky-smelling milk!), don't just ignore it because it technically still should be good for another two days.

If you want to keep your food fresh longer, Nelken says one easy way to do so is to make sure your refrigerator is kept at 41°F or less. "I went to about 40 homes and many of the refrigerators were kept at 45°F, 47°F, or higher, when really food should be kept at 41°F or less in order to keep it from spoiling," he says. The problem, he says, is that most refrigerator dials don't actually tell you what the temperature is, which is why he recommends investing in a fridge thermometer to know for sure (this little Camco Durable Steel Refrigerator-Freezer Thermometer will set you back just $6 on Amazon).

Storing products at the right temperature and then checking for spoilage is truly the best way to reduce food waste while staying safe. In general, your senses are a better indication than a date on the label. Case closed.

BTW, living a sustainable life doesn't have to come at a high price. And another way to cut down on food waste is by cooking with scraps.

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