Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Myth: Products are not safe to eat after their “sell by” date.

Answer: It depends…

The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic recently released a study that says that each year Americans throw out as much as 40 percent of the country’s food supply, worth an estimated $165 billion, much of it as a result of confusion about the dates found on the product. Unfortunately, it is true that how products are dated in the US can be very confusing and can lead to unnecessary food waste. This also makes it very difficult for small-scale food producers and processors to know how to date their products.

On the other hand, food safety people such as myself often tell consumers when considering a questionable food product, “If in doubt, throw it out.” How do we balance these two sides – reducing food waste, but also ensuring food safety? Hopefully, providing these key facts will help consumers protect themselves from potential food safety risks, but also not waste food unnecessarily.

milk jug with "Best Before" date
  1. The only food product on which expiration dates are federally regulated is infant formula. Therefore, you should NOT buy or use baby formula after its “use-by” date, for both safety and nutritional reasons.

  2. Some states do require dating of some foods, but other than infant formula, there is no regulated dating system across the US. However, USDA does provide the following definitions for various terms used on food product labels:
    • “Sell by” date: Tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before that date.
    • “Best if used by (or before)” date: Recommended for best flavor or quality. It is NOT a purchase or safety date.
    • “Use by” date: The last date recommended by the manufacturer for the use of the product while at peak quality.
  3. *Note that these dates generally refer to food quality, rather than safety. However, they can give a general idea of how long the food has been in the market.

  4. The most important thing consumers can do to impact the length of time they can safely keep and use food is to handle it properly. This includes the following:
    • If perishable, take the food home immediately after purchase and refrigerate it (at 40°F or below) within at least 2 hours. Freeze it if you can't use it within USDA recommended refrigerated storage times.
      • Note that once a perishable product is frozen, microbial growth stops, so it will be as safe as it was when it went into the freezer.
    • Store foods at the proper temperature and length of time. Do not leave perishable foods at room temperature for more than 2 hours. For example, if you know that a carton of milk has been sitting on the counter for more than 3 hours, throw it out.
    • Follow the handling and preparation instructions on the product label.
    • Avoid cross-contamination and ensure proper sanitation.
    • If the product does have visible mold, off odors, the can is bulging or other similar signs, this spoilage could be a sign that dangerous microorganisms may also be present, so with such products, use the “If in doubt, throw it out” rule.

Read more on this topic at

Contributor: Londa Nwadike, PhD, Extension Food Safety Specialist,, 816-655-6258

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.