When should you toss your food?
“Sell by,” “Best by,” and “Use by”…there are so many different expressions for food expiration dates. So which ones should you pay attention to? It can be confusing.
In fact, a recent report published in the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy found that more than 90 percent of Americans may be prematurely tossing food because they misinterpreted food labels.
In some cases, dates are quality indicators versus safety indicators. Except for infant formula, product dating is not generally required by federal law. “Sell by” dates are for the grocer, to let them know when to switch out the stock. “Best by” and “Use by” dates indicate the last date of top product quality for the consumers.
With the confusing variations of labels, it is good to keep a general guideline of food safety in mind based on food type. Author Sarah Jio offers helpful strategies on WomansDay.com.
- Meat – raw meat should be consumed or frozen within two days of purchase. Different meats have different lifespans in the freezer. Ground meat is only good for three months, whereas a cut of beef can last eight to 12 months. To spot spoiled meat, look for a brown or green color, sour odor and a slimy, sticky or dry texture.
- Cheese – different cheeses have different shelf lives. Hard cheeses, such as Cheddar, can last three weeks in the fridge and six months in the freezer. Soft cheese, such as Brie, should be used within four days of opening and normally does not freeze well.
- Condiments – don’t always have clear expiration dates. The ones with higher sugar and salt contents last longer. Once opened and refrigerated, ketchup, mustard and jellies last up to eight months; pickles up to two months; salad dressing and butter up to three months.
- Canned foods – keep cans stored below 75 degrees Fahrenheit and do not keep them for over 12 months. After a year, the food in the can may not be spoiled, but there will be a significant loss of vitamins. High-acid canned foods, such as tomatoes, can keep up to 18 months. Low-acid canned food, such as meat, can keep two to five years if stored in a dry, cool, clean place.
- Fruits and vegetables – are usually best if used within a week of purchase. Signs of spoiled produce are molding, withering, slimy spots and yellowing.
“Properly packaging and labeling products in your freezer, fridge and pantry can really help you keep track of items,” he says. “For packaged goods, try writing the purchase date (DDMMYY) and what you estimate the expiration date to be (DDMMYY), so you don’t have to do the math later. Try cleaning out your kitchen of old food every few months to protect yourself from harmful bacteria that can spread when expired food sticks around.”
About the Author
health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Aurora Health sites, which also includes freelance or intern writers.