“Use by” dates – what do they REALLY mean , and how long is it safe to eat after them?

Posted: September 26, 2013 in Humour, Popular Culture et al
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Doug Rauch

Doug Rauch

When Doug Rauch, the former president of American grocery chain Trader Joe’s, announced earlier this week that he is planning on opening a discount store that carries expired food, the big question many responded with was: “Is it safe?”

Consumers the world over have come to equate products past their expiration dates with food poisoning, a misconception that contributes to 40 percent ­— or $160 billion worth — of America’s food supply being trashed each year, for example. A truly shocking fact that has led to out of date food being distributed by food-banks, not to mention the rapidly growing urban meme of “dumpster diving”.

Prince Charles attends A Showcase Of Scottish Food & Drink. It’s not obvious exactly what magma-like substance burbles in that steam tray, or whether Prince Charles has now ascended to a plane of existence in which he can obtain nourishment via gas molecule absorption in his nostrils – nor why he thinks smelling food after its been cooked will make him any safer – but this photograph does make one thing abundantly evident: His Royal Highness can balance a tea cup like a champion.

“Food-borne illness comes from the contamination of food by salmonella, listeria, and other pathogens,” agriculture and food expert Dana Gunders, told Yahoo.

“They get on the food during production and processing. That’s what leads to people being sick, not the age of the food.”

The simple fact is, many foods will still be OK to eat after their “use by” date has long expired, even meat and milk.

As this study shows, many of us worry unnecessarily.

Harvard Study Finds Food Expiration Labels Misleading

While most people think that food labeling is regulated, in the USA, for example, the Federal Food and Drug Administration oversees only the labeling of baby formula. Everything else is at the discretion of the food producer or seller.Similar discrepancies occur in all major Western countries.

Widespread labeling came about during the 1970s, long after the majority of consumers had transitioned from growing their own food or purchasing food from farms and local shops to buying from large supermarkets.

"What, there's something wrong with your nose? I dunno, I eat anything. I eat other dog's poos. Why are you asking me, for Chrissake?"

“What, there’s something wrong with your nose? I dunno, I eat anything. I eat other dog’s poos. Why are you asking me, for Chrissake?”

“The demand for labels came out of a concern about freshness. They were never meant to be about safety,” says Gunders.

In fact, expiration dates aren’t a guarantee of safety at all, since they were designed to simply indicate peak quality.

There are actually two types of food labels. “Sell by” dates are meant to tell retailers when the manufacturer recommends that they rotate stock. “Use by” or “best by” dates, meanwhile, indicate freshness to the consumer. “For most products, it’s up to the manufacturer,” says Gunders. “Some may use actual lab tests, but that’s pretty rare. They might do consumer taste testing or they might guess according to how competitors are labeling.”

The Wellwhatthisiswhatithink fridge holds a variety of products marked “Best before October 10”. What exactly happens on October 11? Answer, it depends entirely on how long the food has been in the food chain, how well you have refrigerated it, and your personal taste. Many meats intensify in flavour if they are kept after the animal was killed – but that’s not always a bad thing. Indeed, if you’re eating “Aged” beef, for example, you’re actually paying a premium for it. It’s only commonsense that a rump steak a few days after it’s “Use By” date is probably absolutely fine to consume.

When it comes to eating so-called expired food, Gunders and other experts say you can indeed consume many foods past their expiration dates if you utilise eyes, nose, and a healthy serving of common sense.

At the Wellthisiswhatithink culinary school, we lost track of the number of times Grandma Wellthisiswhatithink would grab an item out of the fridge and shove her nose next to it, inhaling deeply. “That’s fine!” she would cry in delight, and fling the item at the cook. I guess if you learned your cooking skills sitting under a sheet of corrugated iron waiting for a bomb from the Dornier flying overhead to cook your schnitzel permanently for you, you learned to make the best of things. Over the years, we cautiously started sniffing uncertainly at stuff ourselves. And you know what? When something’s “off”, it usually stinks. If it doesn’t stink, we eat it. Usually. (If it’s actually gone vaguely green we sometimes chicken out, if you’ll pardon the pun.) We’re all still here.

We drink milk days or weeks after it’s supposed, by the date on it, to have “turned” to yoghurt. One sniff will tell you. Nothing tastes as dreadful as a cup of tea with bad milk in it. You know what? Stop drinking it. But if it tastes OK, chances are you’re OK.

“Smell the food,” agrees food safety expert Ted Labuza, as he told Yahoo. Labuza, who teaches food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota says the key to ensuring a longer shelf life is controlling the storage temperature and preventing exposure to moisture and oxygen. Before you toss something out, check out this list of just some of the items that will last beyond their expiration dates, if you follow a few simple steps.

Meat. Labuza keeps his refrigerator at between 32 and 34 degrees, lower than the generally recommended 40 degrees. This gives meat a 50 percent longer shelf life, he says. Labuza points out that stores don’t scientifically determine the use-by date of fresh meat, but follow what their competitors are doing.

Milk. Pasteurized milk also lasts 50 percent longer when stored at a lower temperature.

Canned goods. The label generally gives a shelf life of about three years. If you keep cans in a cool place (not above the stove) they will last about seven years. Always discard dented cans. Bottled goods and stuff in jars will also last longer than their best date if kept in a cool place. Speaking collectively, we have one bottle of Alcoholic Clove Oil at home that doubles as both a natural cure for toothache and the base of a superb mulled wine. We think it was opened sometime in the 1950s. Still tastes fine. We confidently expect to pass it on to Wellthisiswhatithink Jnr when she sets up home for herself.

Frozen food. “I never look at the dates, I just eat it,” says Labuza. Freezing kills all of the microbes that cause spoilage, although food will develop ice crystals (freezer burn) if there is an air space inside the packaging. We agree. One big bag of frozen Brussels sprouts will last us about three Christmases.

Dry goods such as crackers and corn chips. If they have a stale texture, crisp them up in a toaster oven. If they smell “barnyard-y” or rancid, the oils have spoiled and it’s best to discard them.

Eggs. Place in a bowl of water. If an egg floats, it’s gone bad, but if it sinks, it’s still edible, even if that expiration date passed you by weeks ago.

Pasta. Keep pasta in clear packaging in a dark, cool place which will increase shelf life and also retain nutrients, including riboflavin, that are light sensitive.

Bread. Keeping bread and other wheat-flour based foods in the freezer and defrosting as you need them dramatically extends shelf life.

Packaged greens. If your lettuce is wilted but not visibly decayed, you can revive it by soaking in ice water for about 10 minutes.

One caveat: Prepared foods and processed meats can pick up pathogens while being produced. Gunders warns that prepared foods such as a deli sandwich or processed meats can harbour listeria that proliferates even when stored in the refrigerator. So use these types of foods quickly and never serve processed meats such as hot dogs or sausages (including those labeled pre-cooked) raw, especially to small children, the elderly, or anyone who has a compromised immune system. The good news: Cooking will kill surface bacteria.

OK. Second caveat: much of this article is reproduced from Yahoo. (Thank you, Yahoo.) We’re reasonably certain you can ascertain which comments have been added by us. If you take the advice herein and die, whether Yahoo’s bits or ours, we disclaim all responsibility for the accuracy of this advice entirely. In a world that requires hot taps to be labelled with warnings such as “Water from this tap may be hot.” we really aren’t in the consumer advice business at all.

So there. And perhaps if we all apply a bit of commonsense, we can stop wasting perfectly good food, too. Because in a world where a child dies from starvation ever three seconds, that really is wrong.

  1. Bill Hayes says:

    It’s a constant battle with my partner. She swears by sell by dates and I see them as a challenge. The great thing about these date stamps is that one can pick up cheap food in the supermarket late in the day – sometimes 75% off the cover price.

    There’s talk in the Uk of scrapping thwem because they have become acknowledged as being quite arbitary. It is thought that we dump 25% of our food in this country – a discrace indeed!


  2. I can attest to the fact that alcohol-based flavorings are nearly indestructible if kept tightly closed. In the town where I grew up, there was an old-fashioned pharmacist who not only did his own compounding on occasion but also produced Dr. Porr’s Genuine Imitation Vanilla Extract. A bottle of said flavoring could be found on nearly every pantry shelf in town. Unfortunately, Porr’s Pharmacy was located on Front Street (nearest the river) and was severely damaged during Agnes. (Hurricane Agnes – June 1972) After the water receded, Doc Porr sold off undamaged stock and retired. Mom managed to purchase quart bottles of vanilla for herself and each of her girls. I cherished mine and used it sparingly. The level in the bottle sank, but the flavor remained unchanged. Then Grandpa died in late 1982 and we found a nearly-full bottle on his shelves. A treasure! It was duly divided among us women-folk. Alas, I used the last of mine sometime in the late ’80s or early ’90s. The last teaspoon was just as good as the first had been. Heck, the stuff was about 80 proof. Nothing was going to spoil that! I just wish I still had some.


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