Did you know that we as Americans throw an estimated 125-160 billion pounds of food into the landfill every single year? And what makes this statistic even worse, is that a huge percentage of that food thrown out was still safe to eat. So, why does this happen so frequently? Well, because a lot of people completely misunderstood the purpose and meaning of an expiration date that manufacturers have mentioned on their labels.
Understanding Expiration Dates on Food
So, if an expiration date doesn’t always mean that food has gone bad, what does it mean? I’d love to take a moment to share with you not only about expiration dates, but also how to read code dates, and how to tell if a food product is still good even when the expiration date says otherwise. Let’s get started on understanding consumer uncertainty on the food manufacturers’ date confusion.
What is an Expiration Date?
As I mentioned earlier, most Americans today misunderstand what an expiration date actually is. If a particular food product has reached the expiration date that’s listed doesn’t mean that it needs to immediately be thrown out.
Instead, an expiration date is a rough estimate from the manufacturer on when that food will no longer be at its best quality and freshness. It might not have the same texture or best flavor as it once did for product peak quality, but it should still be completely fine to consume.
There are also people who mistake the “sell-by” date as an indication that the product is unfit to eat as well. Again, this is not true! The sell-by date is not really a safety date, it’s the last day that grocery store retailers are able to sell that product and not the last day that the consumer can put it to use in a meal.
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How to Read Food Date Codes
For a vast majority of food products manufacturers typically use a simple code that’s easy to follow. In most cases, the product will say something like “use by” or “best by” followed by a code MMDDYY or MMDDYYYY. The “MM” stands for the month, the “DD” refers to the day, and the “YY” or “YYYY” refers to the year. For instance, if you had a can of green beans with a code date of 122523, you better plan on having them on the lunch menu for Christmas Day in 2023.
There are other times when manufacturers use letters for their code dating. This method is also easy to interpret as long as you follow the letters of the alphabet while going through the months of the year. January would be (A), February (B), March (C), and so forth. So if a box of Macaroni and Cheese read F1223, it would reach its expiration date on June 12th, 2023. I haven’t found this to be a very common dating method for the foods I purchase.
Understanding the Julian Calendar Code
Most food products have a 3-digit code that’s mentioned somewhere on the packaging. This date is the Julian Calendar code that tells the consumer the calendar date the product was made. You’ll see it at times on food items like canned goods and egg products. They do it by applying a numerical value to each day of the year, so if you notice a 3-digit code of 060, you can rest assured that it was made on or near March 1st.
What Should I Do if Something is Expired?
The best thing to do when a food product has reached its expiration date is to use your own judgment by looking, smelling, and then tasting the product to test for the product’s safety. If it seems alright and you feel comfortable consuming it, then go ahead! It’s important to note that some foods can last well after their expiration dates have passed. A perfect example of this would be crackers. They should still taste pretty much as you would expect and be safe to eat, but crackers may have a slight staleness that you may notice.
It’s also important to remember that canned or packaged goods will often still be safe long after the expiration date. This is due to the preservatives they contain. So even if your stockpiled pantry for emergencies has products that are out of date, you should still be ok based on the product’s shelf life. Just remember to use them up, rotate, and replenish them as needed.
What about food stored at home?
Whether it’s your own home storage, or what you see on a store’s shelves, all parties to the food chain should follow perper inventory management. All in all, if something doesn’t look right, smell right, or tastes rancid, then it’s best to throw it out in those situations. What you don’t want to experience is a foodborne illness due to spoilage bacteria.
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Pro Tips for Use-by Date
- Have you ever wondered how you can tell if your carton of eggs has gone bad without having to eat them? All you have to do is put your eggs in a cool bowl of water. When the egg sinks, you know that it’s still good, but when it stands up on its end, the egg is no longer good to eat.
- Pay attention to the USDA’s food safety guidelines, but also use common sense! When you store food, obviously, you are going to get really good quality when you use it within the right dates. However, it doesn’t mean you have to throw away food first thing when you notice the expiration terms.
- Most people will say that you can use food past expiration dates with the exception of baby formula. Since we are talking about someone under 12 months, you don’t want to risk it. It would be one of a few food items I would question using if the expiration date has expired. Infant formula is where the baby gets all of its nutrition, so it’s critical it’s of the highest quality
- It’s more than okay to double-check product dates, especially on perishable foods. I’m more prone to eat canned foods that are expired over dairy products or other fresh foods. Of course, use your five senses as well. If the food expiration dates show the food is expired, but it doesn’t smell or look funny, you may be able to still eat it. You will get the highest quality in a perishable food item if you eat it within the length of time suggested.
- How food is stored can also affect how long it will last. Storing food products in a cool dry environment is the best approach for home storage. High temperatures can cause the food to spoil faster. Of course, if you store some items in the fridge they will tend to maintain their quality for a longer period.
I quote Nellie’s Free Range Eggs“. The water test for egg freshness. First, fill a bowl or glass with about four inches of cold water and gently place your egg(s) inside. Very fresh eggs will sink to the bottom and lay on their sides. If an egg stays at the bottom but stands on its small end, it’s still acceptable to eat; just not quite as fresh.”
What to Look for When You Might Eat an Expired Item
- Is the food package still well intact?
- Is it a shelf-stable product meant to last a long time?
- What is the use of the product? Are you eating it yourself or feeding other people who may be more susceptible to questionable food?
- Is the food in good shape? Does it have an off odor, color, or texture?
- If the can is dented don’t buy it in the first place. If it gets dents or rust at home, perform the color, texture, and smell test before using it. If there are any signs of spoilage be sure to dispose of them.
- If a food product has been frozen, once it’s been thawed you should plan on eating it. This particularly applies to meat products.
More Tips on Food
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What federal agency sets federal law or regulation when it comes to food labels and food safety in general?
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the agency that’s primarily responsible for regulations impacting the food industry. Their regulations cover things like food safety, food labeling and misbranding, and any food adulteration. An agency within the FDA that deals with regulating the labeling of meat, poultry, and shelled egg products is the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS).
The actual law(s) that govern food products under the FDA’s jurisdiction is The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. It covers foods that are produced here in the U.S. and also food products from foreign countries that are consumed here.
What is the FoodKeeper app?
This is a valuable tool that helps you better understand how best to store food and beverages so you can maximize shelf life and extend freshness and food quality. The app was developed by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service which is mentioned above. It was developed in conjunction with the Food Marketing Institute and Cornell University.
I hope this article has been informative. I also hope you feel more comfortable understanding expiration dates, food codes, and the general guidelines for knowing when a product is fit or unfit to consume. What did you learn and find helpful about expiration dates that you’d be willing to share? What are our safety concerns over food product dating? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the food expiry date(s). Are you more likely to eat perfectly good food, even if the date is passed? May God bless this world. Linda