What does an expiration date really mean? - KAIT-Jonesboro, AR-News, weather, sports

How fresh is your food?

When you aren't sure if the food in your refrigerator is safe to eat, most of the time, you can rely on taking a sniff or checking the expiration date.

Have you ever wondered who is checking to ensure those expiration labels are indeed accurate?

The Food and Drug Administration doesn't require product dating except for infant formula.

For everything else, you have to learn a little food label lingo.

We've all taken a swig of milk only to find out it's turned into liquid mold. There's a fine line between snack and science experiment.

The fine print on the package tells store associates the date by which a product should be sold and it lets customers know when the item should be consumed.

Those gentle reminders of when to enjoy food are indicators of quality and not safety.

Product dates help you and the store keep the freshest food on hand so it doesn't end up buried in the back of the fridge.

"That's when you find science projects," according to Ray Zoller, a culinary instructor at Johnson & Wales University.

The "sell by" date lets a store associate know how long the product should remain on their shelves. If the day you're shopping is after the one listed on the label, the product still has a shelf life, but it's just not as long as the other products on the shelf that contain a later date.   

The "best by" date refers to quality and flavor. If the date has passed, the product is likely still safe to eat although it may not be as tasty.

Zoller recommends consumers toss food into the trash if the use by date has passed.

These labels are often found on perishable items like meats, where food-borne bacteria can quickly multiply.

Grocers use these dates for managing what's displayed on their shelves.

The older items move to the front in hopes that inattentive shoppers, or those in a rush, will grab what's on top. If you want the freshest items, you'll have to reach farther back.

Zoller recommends you only buy the items you need until your next shopping trip. That way, you're not wasting food and money stockpiling items that may expire before you are able to use them.

As for those "manager's specials" often found in the meat section of your grocery store, you should know they're not at their prime.

"They're wanting to sell it at a lower price for a reason," Zoller says. "It may still be wholesome, still taste good, but it's coming to the end of its shelf life."

Experts say you shouldn't buy these items unless you plan to take them home and cook them right away.

The freshest food comes from grocers who vigilantly manage their inventory using the dates manufacturers print on the packages. When shoppers use the same idea, they get the best buy. 

Dates can be a little misleading depending on how you handle the food at home.

The "sell by" day could be a week away, but if your refrigerator isn't as cold as the meat case at the store, it will shorten the time frame you have before cooking the item.

This is just one more reason why you should start treating the food in your home the way grocers treat it in the store.

Additional Information:

  • Pre-shredded cheese has a shorter shelf life because of increased surface area. (Source: Ray Zoller, Johnson & Wales University)
  • Meat turns brown or gray when it is exposed to air which causes oxidizing to occur. It may still be safe to eat and your nose is a good indicator of whether or not it's rancid. (Source: Ray Zoller, Johnson & Wales University)
  • Click here for details about food product dating from the FDA.
  • "FIFO" (first in, first out) is the inventory technique used by grocers. Items just off the truck will be placed behind newer items.
  • Meat should be frozen if not used within two days of purchase. Frozen ground beef should be eaten within three months. (Source: Business Week)
  • Fresh or refrigerated products should be stored at 40 degrees F or less at home.
  • Egg cartons with the USDA grade shield must display the "pack date" (when they were washed, graded and put in carton). This 3-digit code represents the consecutive day of the year (starting with January 1 as 001 and ending with December 31 as 365).  When a sell-by date is on the carton, the code may not be more than 45 days from the pack date. (Source: USDA)
  • Always purchase eggs before the sell-by date. Refrigerate them in their original carton in the coldest part of the fridge. Use within three to five weeks.

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