Is the Sell-By Date Reliable?
Posted on Tuesday, January 19th, 2016 at 9:57 am
What’s the first thing you do after picking up a carton of milk or a package of meat? You probably check the sell-by date. We have been taught that the sell-by date is the best way to ensure that the food you are about to consume is safe. What if the sell-by date isn’t as reliable as we have all been taught?
We all want to be sure that the food we are buying is safe to eat. People check the sell-by date because they believe it gives a good approximation of how long the food will stay “good”. People check it again at home before consuming food that has been in the refrigerator for a while.
How reliable are those sell-by dates? The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has some useful information. It may surprise you to learn that, with the exception of infant formula, product dating is not required by federal regulations. However, if a manufacturer wants to put a date on a product, it has to include the month and the day of the month.
There are different types of dates. A sell-by date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before that date expires. Once you bring that product home, the sell-by date is pretty much useless in terms of safety.
A “Best if Used By (or Before)” 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 at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.
The FDA says that products dates don’t always pertain to home storage or use after purchase. Use-by dates refer to best quality, but are not a safety date. The food may still be “safe, wholesome and of good quality if handled properly”. Of course, you should not consume foods that have developed an odor, flavor, or appearance that makes it clear the food has spoiled.
What does this mean for consumers? It means that you may have been throwing away food that is still perfectly safe to consume. This leads to a lot of unnecessary food waste (and wasted money).
The FDA website notes that you should always purchase eggs before the sell-by date. Refrigerate the eggs in their original carton. They recommend putting the eggs in the coldest part of your refrigerator (and not in the door). Eggs that have been properly stored can be safely used within 3 to 5 weeks of the date you purchased them.
Still not sure? The FDA website has a chart that tells you how long certain foods stay good. Keep in mind that the sell-by date is there to guide grocery stores about when to get rid of food. It does not mean you cannot safely consume food past its sell-by date.