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The next time you go to the grocery store, check out the confusing variety of packaged food labels centering on food freshness.  Some of those labels use terms like “use before,” “sell by,” “expires on,” and even more.  The consumer uncertainty about the meaning of the dates is believed to contribute to about 20% of the food waste in our homes.

To help dispel this confusion, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is supporting the food industry’s efforts to standardize the use of the term “Best if Used By” on its packaged-food labeling if the date is simply related to optimal quality — not safety. Studies have shown that this best conveys to consumers that these products do not have to be discarded after the date if they are stored properly.

Most Date Labels Are Not Based on Exact Science

According to Kevin Smith, Senior Advisor for Food Safety in the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, the “Best if Used By” labels you see on packaged foods relate to the quality of the product, but that predicting when a food will no longer be of adequate quality for consumption is not an exact science. 

Manufacturers generally apply date labels at their own discretion and for a variety of reasons. The most common is to inform consumers and retailers of the date up to which they can expect the food to retain its desired quality and flavor. The key exception to this general rule is for infant formula products.  But if we can't depend on the dates stamped on our food to tell us when it's time to throw it out, how do we decide what to pitch and what to keep?  Our friends at AARP provided the answers below.

Store food correctly to avoid illness

Optimal storage conditions are more important than sell-by dates when it comes to food safety. Even if the date expires during home storage, the U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines say that a product should be “safe, wholesome and of good quality if handled properly and kept at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below."

Bacteria multiplies rapidly between 40 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, something that can happen anytime, regardless of the date on the package. If refrigerated at the proper temperature, safe storage ranges for some common items include:

  • Ground meats, fresh poultry: 1 to 2 days
  • Fresh beef, veal, lamb and pork (roasts, chops and steaks): 3 to 5 days
  • Lunch meat, opened package/deli sliced: 3 to 5 days; unopened package: 2 weeks
  • Leftovers: 3 to 4 days
  • Cut fruit: 4 days
  • Hard-boiled eggs: 1 week
  • Chopped vegetables stored in an air-tight container: 1 week
  • Pasteurized milk: 1 week beyond sell-by date
  • Raw eggs in shell: 3 to 5 weeks
  • Soft cheese, opened: 2 weeks. If mold develops, toss it.
  • Hard cheese, opened: 3 to 4 weeks. If it develops a blue-green mold on the exterior, cut away the mold plus an additional half inch below it.

A note about produce: Visibly aging produce can emit gases that speed the ripening of other produce. Use immediately or compost it.

Additionally, there are resources available online from the FDA for consumers with questions about how long to keep perishable foods, including meat, seafood and dairy products:

Waste Not: Advice on How to Reduce Food Waste

The FDA is working with federal partners and other stakeholders to help consumers better understand the variety of actions they can take to reduce food waste. The FDA’s Food Waste and Loss page links to resources from the FDA, EPA and USDA.

Other ways to reduce waste include:

  • Refrigerate peeled or cut vegetables for freshness, quality and safety.
  • Use the freezer as your friend. It’s a great way to store many foods to retain their quality until you are ready to eat them.
  • Avoid bulk and impulse purchases, especially of produce and dairy products that have a limited shelf life.
  • When eating out, if you’re not terribly hungry, request smaller portions. Bring your leftovers home and refrigerate or freeze them within two hours.

Dean and Draper

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Sources: U.S. Food and Drug Administration, AARP

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