Expiration dates

They’re helpful — and confusing

By
January 21, 2009

From individual eggs to bottled water (water!), expiration dates are printed everywhere these days. While they ultimately do more help than harm, expiration dates and the confusion they create usually send a lot of perfectly good food straight from the store to the Dumpster.

So here are eight things to keep in mind about expiration dates on food.

  1. “Sell by” versus “use by.” The former term is intended for vendors, to let them know how long to display items on store shelves. The latter term is for consumers.

    But you’ve probably also seen such terms as “best before,” “use or freeze by,” and “enjoy before.” These terms are also geared to consumers, and are pretty self-explanatory.

    Just promise me that you won’t treat all dates on food products as “toss-by” dates. Most food is perfectly good for about a week after the sell-by date passes, and the same can usually be said for items with use-by dates.
  2. Date labels are conservative. Once food producers ship their goods, plenty can go wrong with getting the product safely to the consumer. A truck’s refrigerated unit can malfunction, or goods can linger on a loading dock on a hot day. Manufacturers factor in that uncertainty by planning for just about the worst-case scenario.

    Food producers naturally want to ensure that their products are consumed at peak freshness (and, of course, avoid lawsuits). Consider how careful the USDA is with their suggested storage times, telling consumers that chicken or ground beef should only be stored for one or two days after purchase. Most of us keep our chicken breasts or ground chuck in the fridge much longer, with no ill effects.
  3. eggs with expiration dates
    Some eggs are etched with expiration dates.
    Flavor goes before freshness. Most foods are safe to eat for a few days after their expiration dates; they won’t instantly grow mold on the day after a use-by date. They’re just not quite as fresh as the producer would like.

    As the USDA explains, “‘Use-by’ dates usually refer to best quality and are not safety dates. But even if the date expires during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome, and of good quality — if handled properly and kept at 40 degrees or below.”

    With that in mind, you just have to come up with finding appropriate uses for items as they wane. Leftover chicken converts to chicken salad. Bread becomes French toast or croutons. And so forth.
  4. Overzealous producers and packers. Many food products are actually tossed long before their actual expiration dates.

    This early chucking occurs when a grower or packer determines that a product won’t make the cross-country trip to stores in time. Most producers want their products to arrive in stores more than a week before their sell-by dates.

    So as a result of distance and caution, our food chain sends tons of bagged spinach, for example, to the landfill a full two weeks before the use-by date printed on the label.
  5. Wasteful retailers. To keep up their image of selling only the freshest foods, most grocery stores pull some items from their shelves well before their stamped sell-by dates. And almost all food items are removed by the morning of their sell-by dates.

    At the extreme end of this practice, it’s common for stores to pull baby formula — the only food item required by federal law to have an expiration date — from shelves 60 days before its expiration date. (That said, several national retailers have been sued recently for selling infant formula that had expired several weeks earlier. So buyer beware.)
  6. Donations bonus. Expiration dates are a boon for food donations, as they create a steady supply of edible but not sellable food. If the dates didn’t exist, stores might keep items on the shelves until they actually started going bad.

    Instead, these sell-by casualties are staples at most food banks across the country. Food-recovery groups rescue these goods from supermarkets that recognize the folly of throwing away perfectly good food.

    However, the donations can only occur if there’s a nonprofit organization willing to collect the food and a store manager who knows his company won’t be held liable (under the Good Samaritan Act) should anyone get sick from food donated in good faith.
  7. Donations hindrance. Because some stores view expiration dates as binding, they choose not to donate items at or past their sell-by dates. This occurs most often with meat and produce, which many stores are reluctant to donate.

    This is doubly unfortunate, as the expiration dates on fresh proteins, fruits, and vegetables are just as cautious as for other food products, and fresh foods are the toughest items for food banks to amass. Bread products, on the other hand, are a common donation from supermarkets.
  8. Use your nose. Trust your senses, not the date labels. If an item that’s past its expiration date still looks good, take a sniff or have a taste and decide for yourself. And keep in mind the fact that if you’re not sure if you’ve ever smelled rotten milk, you haven’t.

Jonathan Bloom is a journalist writing a book on wasted food in America. When he’s not combing through the discount produce rack, he’s blogging on the topic at Wasted Food.

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1. by Carrie Floyd on Jan 21, 2009 at 10:49 AM PST

This is helpful, thanks. It’s good to know what the date labels mean, to use them as a reference instead of a mandate.

2. by ivyt on Jan 21, 2009 at 7:39 PM PST

Very interesting. I am also afraid of the mystery alpha codes that are dates on some of my packages and cans, I call the companies to decipher the date codes. Anything that is near the expiration dates I have always thrown in the garbage. How wasteful is that?. But I would not want anyone to become ill because of me. I guess it is a very expensive precaution. Now I know about use by and sell by dates. Thanks.

3. by JeanE23 on Jan 22, 2009 at 2:16 PM PST

Well, I don’t like that image of truckloads of my favorite spinach heading to the landfill - that’s just crazy. But I am surprised to read that grocers are supposedly so conservative. From my experience, the stores are determined to get rid of inventory by keeping it on the shelves as long as possible.

4. by amber jane on Jan 23, 2009 at 7:26 AM PST

I dumpster dive with some of my friends for a lot of this so called “expired” food. Since dumpstering my relationship and view towards food has changed a lot. So much food that we throw away is edible! Cheese that has mold...cut the mold off. Apples that have brown spots...cut them out.
we also volunteer to pick up food at the grocer and then take it to the homeless shelter and some non profits here in Portland. the left over we get to keep!
I hope and encourage all of you to treat your food differently. The throwing away of food is horrible, I do hope this changes...but for now your dumpster is my treasure chest.
PS My grocery bill at worst was $400 a month, now maybe $200 but more like $100. Love you dumpsty!

5. by lisa on Jan 23, 2009 at 8:03 AM PST

Thanks for the advice. While I’ve questioned the dates on food packaging, and often wait several days before chucking food away, it’s good to hear it again.

6. by SARITA on Jan 24, 2009 at 11:08 PM PST

GOOD TO KNOW ITS NOT JUST ME. MY MOM ALWAYS TOLD US IT (THE EXPERATION DATE) WAS CONSERVATIVE, BUT MY HUSBAND ALWAYS WOULD BLANCH WHEN I WOULD USE SOMETHING 1 OR 2 DAYS AFTER THE EXP. DATE. MOM WAS RIGHT!

7. by Lois M Leveen on Jan 26, 2009 at 10:52 PM PST

This reminds me of one of my favorite exchanges from Fran Drescher’s sit-com “The Nanny,” between the main character and her mother, whose house she is visiting:
Fran Fine: Do you have any sour cream?
Sylvia Fine: I do, if you don’t mind expiration dates.
This pretty much sums up my attitude. Seriously, how can “sour” cream go off? I mean, if it’s moldy, that’s one thing. But if it’s just white and sour, isn’t that what I paid for?

8. by Sophia Markoulakis on Jan 27, 2009 at 11:54 AM PST

As a former retailer, expiration dates are a major issue. A good retailer must devote a huge amount of time examining every case that passes through his doors. Many distributors will pass on short-coded products if they can get away with it. Policies differ and often retailers are stuck and then get the bad rap for having expired product on the shelves even after being conscientious. Once we had several cases of pet food that came in short-coded and couldn’t sell. I couldn’t find any local animal shelter to take it so in the garbage it went.

9. by Gary Cox on Jan 28, 2009 at 8:35 AM PST

As a regular customer at Salvage grocery stores, I’ve had first hand experience with the reality of product dates. Salvage grocery stores sell food that is either close to or already past the date listed on the product; yet the food is still perfectly good and safe to eat. The packaging may not be in perfect condition; but the food is. I offer the following examples that I purchased about 1 month ago from a salvage grocery store.

Quaker Oatmeal Crunch (Maple and Brown Sugar)
Best if Used by June 4, 2007

Della Spice of Rice (Thai Curry)
Sell by February 15, 2007

I purchased the Oatmeal for $0.50 a box and the Rice for $1.50 for a case of 12. I have eaten these items regularly and have not had any problems with the safety or the taste.

10. by giovannaz on Jan 28, 2009 at 4:45 PM PST

Helpful--thanks!

11. by Holly on Jan 29, 2009 at 6:45 AM PST

Oh man, I have used cream and yogurt LONG after they were supposedly past-due--especially the ultra-pasteurized cream--if it stays cold and closed, it lasts almost forever.

On the consumer front, there is one (local, co-op) grocer where I shop that takes all their iffy produce and puts it in a bin at steep discounts. I’ve gotten in the habit of checking that bin first when I go into the store. Not only can I get super-cheap fruit for breakfast baking, but I have also sampled some more exotic (to me) vegetables that I might have otherwise never bought.

Flip side? Last time I was at Whole Foods this kid was removing bags of prepared salad mix that were stamped “sell by today.” I told him I’d buy one so they wouldn’t go to waste. He said it was illegal for him to sell me one. Yeah, right. Store policy maybe, but I doubt it was illegal. I hope at least they donated all that lettuce.

12. by anonymous on Jan 29, 2009 at 9:21 PM PST

Thank you for publishing this. I used to work at Trader Joe’s and people would come up to me all the time asking for bread that “expired” any later when the loaf in their hand had a sell-by date that was still 5 or more days away.

13. by Savannah on Jan 31, 2009 at 6:14 PM PST

Some local stores and restaurants here and in Portland conveniently leave their “past-expiration” foods set out next to the dumpster, not even in it. I’m not quite sure how to suggest this idea to businesses, but if you own one, it’s certainly an excellent thing to do.

14. by anonymous on Nov 14, 2010 at 9:09 AM PST

I have no experation date on my box of Argo corn starch,which I know I have had for quite some time,048001071049.

15. by bryan flake on Jan 22, 2014 at 10:13 AM PST

I was just having this conversation with a co-worker the other day. I am confused by the whole debate. I am scared to use any product confidently.

bryanflake1984

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