The Truth About Expiration Dates

We’ve seen them adorning the packaging of our favorite food and drinks. Those expiration dates always seem to come more quickly than expected, and they always have us wondering how true they are and what harm will be done if we eat an expired treat.

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There is no regulation on expiration dates.

Many people assume that expiration dates on food is some type of legal requirement, but it’s not. The USDA does not have a standardized system for dating food and drinks. Some manufacturers may choose to leave the expiration date off their products. Others may place a “sell by” date on their products while others place a “use by” date.

Not every expiration date is the same.

If you notice a “sell-by” date on an item, this is a tip for retailers to know when to pull items off shelves. Once an item has exceeded its “sell by” date, retailers either need to remove the item completely or knock it down in price to try and sell it more quickly.

A date that says “best if used by” is not an expiration date. This has to do with the nutrition of an item. When a product is marked with a “best by” date, it means that the item has the most nutritional value and the most flavor if it is consumed before a certain date. Once that date has been exceeded, the product is still perfectly safe to consume, it just may not taste as good.

A “use by” date also has to do with quality. With a “use by” date, manufacturers are letting consumers know that the product will have a better quality when used on or before that date. It does not mean that the product is unsafe if consumed after that date, it just means it may not taste the same.

Food can last beyond its expiration date.

Since most expiration dates are referring to quality, most products can continue to be consumed after its sell by date. (Some food and drink may last a few days beyond its “use by” date, but not all will, so it’s best to use caution.) Cheeses and eggs can last a few weeks beyond their expiration dates. Meats can only last a few days beyond their expiration date.

To be safe, you want to thoroughly examine your items and even smell them. If a funky odor is coming from the product, your best bet is to throw it away.

If food is properly stored, it is safe to consume after its expiration date. Don’t leave food out on the counter or under extreme heat. In order to be kept safe, foods need to be refrigerated and tightly packaged. Food that is left out for long periods of time can become a hub for bacteria. If you are having a party, do not leave fruit or vegetable trays out for longer than two hours, otherwise they become infested with bacteria. It is also a good idea not to leave meat out to thaw for more than two hours either.

So before you go throwing food or drinks away the minute their expiration dates arrive, thoroughly examine the product. If you can eat it within a week, it is perfectly safe to keep and consume.

Flora Huges lives in Chicago.  She is an avid writer and likes to write about health, safety, and cleaning.  Flora recently wrote about the importance of MSDS sheets.

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