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Do food expiration dates really mean anything?

By Hilary Meyer, May 3, 2012 - 12:00pm

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Some people have a fear of snakes. Others are afraid of heights. For me, it’s spoiled food. I’m not claiming that this fear of mine is at all rational, but do I really need to be concerned?

There comes a time when everyone has to face their fears. And that’s going to start with a little digging into expiration dates. Do I really need to throw food away by the date printed on the carton? If not, how long do I have before it really goes bad? And what does “going bad” really mean? Is it unsafe?

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Here’s what I found that may surprise you:

1) Expiration dates aren’t required
I assumed that there is a regulatory process involved with expiration dates—hard and fast rules. This is not the case. According to the USDA, there is “no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States,” although some states do require it, and there are dating regulations when it comes to infant formula.

2) Different dates have different meanings
“Sell-by” “Best if used by” and “use-by” have similar, but slightly different meanings. “Sell-by” is geared more toward the retailer, indicating to them when they should rotate product off the shelves. “Best if used by” is an indicator of quality (the food will not be “bad” after that date) and “use-by” is the last day the manufacturer recommends using the product based on quality, not safety.

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3) How long will my food last if it goes past the expiration date?
That depends on what it is and how it was handled. The USDA recommends using products that display the “use-by date” by that time. For sell-by dates that go past at home, you can continue to store the food for a short amount of time depending on what it is. Some common products are: ground meat and poultry (1-2 days past the date), beef (3-5 days past the date), eggs (3-5 weeks past the date).

Related: Which Milk Is the Best to Buy?

4) Could food lose its nutritional value before it’s expired?
That depends on the food. Take orange juice, for example. One cup of OJ can offer a full day’s dose of vitamin C. But after it’s been open for a week, it loses all antioxidant benefits from exposure to air and light. (And that could happen even before it reaches its expiration date.) Here are 4 common foods with a surprisingly short nutritional “shelf life.”

5) Is food safe after it expires?
Expiration dates refer to quality, not safety. For example, if a refrigerated product was kept below 40 degrees and was well packaged and handled, it may look and smell a little funny, but would not necessarily be considered unsafe. If it was left out on a warm counter for hours or contaminated by something else, it may harbor harmful bacteria that could cause food-borne illness. (Perishable foods should never be thawed on the counter for longer than 2 hours because, while the center of the food may remain frozen, the outer surface may enter the Danger Zone, the range of temperatures between 40° and 140°F, in which bacteria multiply rapidly.) For this same reason, you should never eat meat, poultry, eggs or sliced fresh fruits and vegetables that have been left out for more than 2 hours (1 hour in temperatures hotter than 90°F). But this could happen to any food and is not related to expiration dates.

More From EatingWell: 5 Foods You Shouldn't Keep in Your Fridge

Do you eat food past its expiration date? Tell us what you think below.

TAGS: Hilary Meyer, Healthy Cooking Blog, Cooking tips

Hilary Meyer
EatingWell Associate Food Editor Hilary Meyer spends much of her time in the EatingWell Test Kitchen, testing and developing healthy recipes. She is a graduate of New England Culinary Institute.

Hilary asks: Do you eat food past its expiration date?

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