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You’re sorting through the fridge and decide you want a glass of milk. However, its expiration date has passed, and you can’t figure out whether it’s still safe to drink some. This is just one example of the frequent dilemma people find themselves in when making decisions about the safety of their food.
Unfortunately, people misinterpret food date labels more than 80 percent of the time, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. The organization says this leads to people throwing away food prematurely. But another important issue to consider is how misinterpreting food labels also can put people at risk for developing foodborne illnesses, due to the consumption of bacteria. View common foodborne illnesses and their symptoms from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Most dates listed on food products are manufacturers’ recommendations for product quality and freshness, so they have nothing to do with safety. Furthermore, no federal regulations currently exist for food date labeling. As a result, it’s important that we understand ways to ensure the food we eat is safe, as well as when we should—and shouldn’t—rely on food labels.
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How to Read Food Date Labels
Many consumers don’t understand what common food date labeling language means when they purchase foods in the supermarket and later examine those foods at home. Here are explanations for each common term:
- “Sell by” dates: These inform stores of the last day the item will be at peak freshness. The stores pull products with expired “‘sell by”’ dates off the shelves. These dates are regulated at the state level with requirements varying state to state.
- “Best if used by” and “best before” dates: These refer to when the product is at peak flavor and freshness.
- “Use by” dates: Manufacturers set these, and they also refer to the product’s quality.
- “Packed on” dates: Manufacturers use these to confirm when the food was made.
As you can see, food label dates don’t mean the same thing at all. Your foods at home might be perfectly fine to eat even a few days after a “sell by” or “best if used by” date. That’s why it’s best to keep some general guidelines in mind when deciding whether to eat a food or toss it in the trash.
Protect Yourself from Foodborne Illness
To avoid foodborne illnesses—which have symptoms that can include fever, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and vomiting—it’s important to be familiar with general guidelines for when foods are safe to eat. For example:
- Leftovers should be consumed within two to three days of refrigerating
- Perishable foods left unrefrigerated for more than two hours should be discarded
- If a food item looks, smells or tastes spoiled—even if the expiration date says it’s OK—err on the side of caution, and throw it out or compost it
Below are recommendations you can follow for specific food categories.
- Use or freeze fresh, unfrozen poultry, or seafood within one to two days of purchase, and eat clams and scallops within 24 hours of buying them
- Freeze fresh, unfrozen beef, veal, pork, and lamb within three to five days of purchase
- Use or freeze organ meats within one to two days of purchase
- Use or freeze ground meats or sausages of any kind within one to two days of purchase
- Eat or freeze deli meats within three to five days of returning home from a deli or after opening an airtight sealed container, and within seven to 10 days after the “sell by” date
Milk, Eggs, and Cheese
- Fresh eggs usually are safe for three to five weeks in the refrigerator, but discard egg substitutes within two to three days of opening
- Drink milk until about five to seven days after the “sell by” date
- Hard cheeses, properly stored and refrigerated, typically are good for up to six months
- Eat refrigerated soft cheeses, such as cream cheese, brie, and goat cheese, within a week of opening and before the expiration date on the package
Sauces and Spreads
- Sauces and spreads are exposed to bacteria every time the container is opened, so make sure to continuously monitor them for signs of spoilage
- Mayonnaise is good for three to six months when sealed and about two months once opened and refrigerated up to the expiration date
Fresh Produce and Juice
- Consume refrigerated unpasteurized juices within two to three days of buying them
- Eat or freeze fresh berries within three days of purchasing them
- Eat sprouts within two days of buying them
The FoodKeeper App is an excellent resource in which you can search food items and discover whether they’re considered safe to eat, if you are ever unsure.
Understanding when it’s safe to eat foods is an important way to avoid foodborne illnesses. Make sure to keep these tips in mind the next time you’re wondering whether that food in the fridge is safe to eat.