Tuesday, February 21, 2017

What Those Food Product Dates Really Mean

Should you toss out those eggs or that carton of milk just because it’s past the “best if used by” date? What does it really mean?
You may be surprised to learn that food producers are not required to put product dating on foods – with one exception: baby food. But, food manufacturers often do put dates on foods. While that can be a good thing, it can also lead to a lot of food waste.

Here are just a few common dates you'll see on food labels and what they mean: 
·         "Best if Used By/Before" tells you when a food will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

·          "Sell-By" tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date.

·         "Use-By" is the last date recommended for the use of the food while at peak quality.

Most of the time, the food is still good for a few days (sometimes longer) past these dates. Now, two big food industry groups are trying to decrease the confusion about what these dates mean. The Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute are now recommending using only two dates: “best if used by" or “use by”. Manufacturers should use “best if used by” on foods you can use past that date. They should use the “use by” date on foods that really could be unsafe if they sit on the shelf or in the fridge too long.

These are just guidelines but the hope is that most food companies will be using them by sometime in 2018. We hope this will cut down on food waste but it could also be good for your budget!

So how do you know if a food should be thrown out? Give it a sniff. If it smells off, then throw it out. If you see mold or deterioration, definitely throw it out. In the case of hard cheese, you can cut away the mold and it’s still safe to eat. But my big tip is to freeze foods if you know you won’t be able to use it up soon after the date. This works particularly well with meats, shredded cheeses, and breads but just about anything can be frozen (with a few exceptions)! For more information on how long you should keep foods, what to do when the power goes out for a long time, and what foods freeze well, go to www.foodsafety.govhttps://www.foodsafety.gov/. This is a great website for learning about how to keep foods safe and maximize food quality. 

Beth Kitchin, PhD, RDN
Assistant Professor, Nutrition Sciences
University of Alabama at Birmingham 

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