Making that decision about what food needs to go and what is still safe to eat can be quite confusing.
True, there are dates printed on food containers, but they do not always prove to be the most helpful. Some say “sell by” while others say “best if used by.” Is it a food safety concern or will the food just not be as fresh or as good quality?
The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service has some clear and concise guidelines explaining the dating on food containers.
Product dating, with the exception of infant formula, is not required by federal regulations. However, some states have requirements while others do not. Even though it isn’t required everywhere, many food manufacturers do put dates on their products.
• A “Sell By” date informs the store how long to display the product for sale. Generally, you should buy the product before the date expires.
• A “Best If Used By” date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
• A “Use By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. This date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.
• “Closed or coded” dates are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer.
These codes are primarily used for food quality, not food safety. Perishable foods like meat, poultry, dairy and eggs are at higher risk for food safety issues. It is generally recommended that you eat food by the “use-by” date.
It is not merely good enough to use the “smell test” to test if something is safe to eat. You can’t see, smell or taste bacteria that cause foodborne illnesses. If you are not going to be able to use the food by the “use-by” date, plan to freeze it.
For eggs, specifically, always buy them before the “sell-by” date noted on the carton. Be sure to refrigerate them immediately when you get home, and place them in the coldest part of the refrigerator (on a shelf closer to the back) in the original container. Plan to use the eggs within 3-5 weeks of when you purchased them.
What about canned goods and other non-perishable food items? High-acid foods such as tomatoes will generally have the best quality if used within 12-18 months.
Low-acid canned goods such as meats, fish or vegetables will keep their best quality if used within two to five years. Be sure to check the condition of the cans upon purchase.
Dented cans should not be used as a general rule for optimum food safety. Store canned goods in a cool, clean, dry place. The first-in, first-out method should be used to ensure the oldest cans are used first. Home-canned foods should be used within one year for best quality.
For spices and herbs, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests they keep for about one year. A quick assessment you can do yourself is open them up and see if you can smell their aroma. If you can’t, it’s time to replace them. Spices and herbs should be kept in a cool, dark, dry place.
There are a number of online resources to help with other food safety concerns. Check out www.HomeFoodSafety.org for tips to reduce risk of food poisoning and other food safety issues. Additional food safety and food quality tips can be found at www.eatright.org.