Did you know that the only items required by federal law to label expiration dates are infant formula and particular types of baby foods? The expiration date is the recommended last day the item should be eaten or used for consumption. We live in a world of prolonged shelf life due to the processed nature of what we now eat and many of us are always looking at these expiration dates. But what do they actually mean? You might be surprised...
There are a number of catch phrases when it comes to expiration date labeling. “Best if used by or before [date]” pertains to quality, not safety. The food might not taste as good or have the same quality if not eaten before the recommended date. “Guaranteed fresh” typically is found on bakery items. A stale muffin eaten after the date doesn’t quite taste the same. “Sell by [date]” is really for the store's purposes. This date tells the stores when they should remove it from the shelves. The item is still edible post-[date], but it will not be of the same quality. Sometimes stores lower prices on these items after the date has passed. “Born on [date]" is usually found on beer labels because after 3 months beer can become "compromised" by light and oxidation. “Pack [date]” is on packaged items or canned goods and it refers to the date they were actually packaged. These terms can be tricky, and the sniff test doesn’t always equate to the expiration date shown.
There are some general applicable rules to follow when it comes to expiration dates. Milk will usually be okay up to 1 week after the expiration date listed. Seafood and chicken should be cooked or put in the freezer within 1 to 2 days of purchasing. Beef and pork should be eaten or frozen within 3 to 5 days. Canned goods are usually okay for up to 5 years, but items that have high acidity, like tomato sauce, are better used within about 2 years. Eggs can last up to 3 to 5 weeks after bringing them home.
Proper storage is important. Food that needs to be refrigerated should be kept under 41 degrees Fahrenheit and should not be kept out for more than 4 hours. Milk requires storage at 38 degrees and fish at 32 degrees. As the popularity of buying in bulk has increased, trips to the store for fresh foods has decreased. Always be cautious and check dates. After all, eating cottage cheese that has grown hair on it clearly is more of a science experiment than a delightful snack.