What do ‘expiration’ dates on foods really mean?

Call it the year of living dangerously: Scott Nash, founder of the food chain Mom’s Organic Market, decided to find out if those ‘best by’ and ‘use by’ dates on the food he bought were accurate. It began when he was visiting his vacation cabin in Virginia and wanted to make a smoothie, only to realize that the only yogurt in the refrigerator was six months past the date on the label. He opened the package and gave the yogurt a sniff. It looked and smelled fine, so he decided to take a chance and made the smoothie. He waited for something bad to happen, but nothing did. That’s when he decided to see just how important those ‘expiration’ dates on food packaging were

use by date

Nash used all manner of products beyond the dates imprinted on their packages, all with no ill effect. So what gives? The answer is that, at least in the U.S., food ‘expiration’ dates are loosely regulated, with the manufacturers allowed to choose their own wording and the dates based on a number of factors, including whether the company thinks that people would be suspicious if their fresh food did not expire quickly enough. Therefore you will see different phrases like ‘sell by’, ‘use by’, or ‘best before’, with no explanation of what the terms mean, and no regulation to define them.

In the UK, things are different. Only two phrases are allowed – ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ – with the former linked to safety of the food product and the latter relating to the quality, rather than the safety, of the food. Even this more simplified system leaves consumers confused, however, with only 45% of those polled understanding the difference between the two classifications. 

What this boils down to is a lot of unnecessary binning of perfectly safe and usable foods. “When in doubt, throw it out,” is the mantra of food safety experts, but for many items it is fine to let your nose and eyes be your guide. I admit to playing it fast and loose with the so-called ‘expiration’ dates on my food. For one thing, sugar and salt have ‘use by’ dates which makes me call into question the veracity of the entire system. 

In my refrigerator you will find several items past their ‘best by’ dates, including lingonberry jam (December 2018), buttermilk (two weeks past the date), and a handful of condiments or sauces with a high enough sugar content that I am confident they are safe to eat. Periodically I will do a purge and toss out some items, but that has more to do with how likely I am to actually use the product than with its safety. Of course, if I spot mold or detect an ‘off’ aroma, into the bin it goes. 

There are some foods where the ‘sniff test’ is not a reliable method to determine whether it is still safe to eat. The spores that cause botulism are odorless and colorless, as are E. coli and salmonella. Those are most likely to be found in meat and on the skins and peels of fresh fruit and vegetables, so I make sure to adhere to the dates on meat and also thoroughly rinse fruits and veg before cutting or eating. I also eat raw cookie dough, so obviously I like to live on the edge. How closely do you follow the dates on your foods? 

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  • Jane  on  April 22, 2019

    I've always been suspicious of these dates since my father noticed on a visit to a yoghurt factory that the use-by dates varied a lot on product lines for different grocery stores own-label brands. When he asked why they were different even though the yogurt was the same, he was told each supermarket set their own dates. I follow your rules Darcie – if it has mold or smells off, then it goes into compost (though I remember my mother just scraping off the top layer if there was mold, to no detriment to our health). I've never given myself food poisoning (yet!). It is a disgrace how much food gets thrown away, and these spurious dates are a major contributor.

  • FJT  on  April 22, 2019

    I test my eggs in a bowl of water if I think they might be too old and I scrape the mould off all sorts of things. If it smells ok, it probably is ok! With meat, poultry and fish it’s unlikely that it will get past the use by date anyway – I buy it because I have specific plans to use it … or if I buy something on special offer it goes straight into the freezer.

    When we cleared my Mum’s pantry out after she died there were some very strange things lurking in tins at the back – some of them almost as old as I am. We decided to err on the safe side and bin those and we did it knowing that she would have been horrified!!

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