Who actually pays attention to those "use by" and "best before" dates on food packaging? Apparently a lot of people do, to the tune of millions of pounds of good, still edible food being thrown away.
In the UK, it's called "best before paranoia," but it should just be called ignorant and needless waste. It turns out that those tiny numbers are not really warning us that we will get sick or die if we eat any food past that date -- it's giving us a head's up that it just may not taste as good as it did before that date had passed.
Did you know that 99 percent of food does not legally require any kind of date on it at all?
"The first thing to understand is that there are a bunch of different kinds of dating (best by, use by, expiration dates) that all have slightly different meanings," explains Michael Batz, head of food safety programs at the University of Florida's Emerging Pathogens Institute.
"The second thing to understand is that most of these dates have nothing to do with getting sick. These dates are mostly there for quality -- texture, taste, color, and so forth. In fact, the only dates required by law are those on infant formula and some baby food."
In my house, we eat stuff past the expiration date all the time and this was before I found out that those dates are bogus. In my case, it's because I'm an animal -- I have always gone by the smell of food to decide if it was good to eat.
There are also foods that stay fresher longer -- packaged, prepared food like hummus for instance, stay much longer than deli meats. "Ironically, the one type of food that doesn't usually have a date, but should, is food from the deli department. When you buy turkey slices or macaroni salad from the deli, there often isn't a date, but they should be eaten within three to four days. The risk for these products is a bug called Listeria monocytogenes, which grows well in refrigerator temperatures and is often associated with deli products," informs Batz.
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When my mom stays over, she literally freaks out when I drink milk that has "expired." And most people tend to think that milk is one of those foods whose expiration date you really must adhere to. Not so, says Batz. "The dates on meat, poultry, seafood, milk and other perishables are called "sell by" dates and are really there for the retailer to keep track of freshness. Milk is safe a week or so past the sell by date, poultry should be eaten or frozen within two days, and beef and pork should be eaten or frozen within five days."
Oddly enough, the date that people pay least attention to may be the most important. "The dates on most pantry items like peanut butter, canned soups, or cereals are called "use by" or "best before" dates. If stored correctly, most of these items are probably fine from a safety standpoint for quite a long time after. Personally, I wouldn't risk it with canned goods, since botulism is no joke. Bulging or damaged cans should always be tossed, regardless of date."
Fortunately, there is a way to know for sure what we can and cannot safely eat. "For specific products, I recommend the website stilltasty.com. They also have an iPhone app. For any product you have, it will help you answer the question, 'keep it or toss it?'."