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Should I Throw That Out? A Guide to Food Expiration Dates

Did you know that Americans throw away $75 billion dollars in food every year? It's true. According to a University of Arizona study on US Food Waste, the typical American family discards 14 percent of the food purchased in a year, which usually amounts to about $600. That's bad practice for cash-strapped families. Much of the waste is due to confusion over food safety. Sell-by dates and expiration dates can confuse consumers.


Why the Confusion?

There are several causes for the confusion surrounding food dates. First, no one wants to get sick from food. It’s more than a little unpleasant and can even kill the frail. Second, every time a food illness happens, it’s all over the national news, making consumers hyper-vigilant about the problem. 

Think about it. When was the last food illness you heard about that resulted from eating out-dated food? It doesn’t happen that way. People get sick when fresh food gets contaminated. It has nothing to do with the date on the product.

Another factor in the problem is the manufacturer practice of putting several different dates on food that is sold to American consumers. You might see any of the following types of labels, each with a different meaning: 

  • Sell-by
  • Pull-by
  • Best if used by
  • Use-by
  • Guaranteed fresh
  • Expiration date


What Exactly Do Those Dates Mean?

Sell-by or pull-by date dates are guidelines for manufacturers, not consumers. They are just tools that help retailers rotate stock so they don’t end up wasting food. Buying foods near or after this date can get you a great bargain. Just be sure to freeze it right away until you are ready to use it. Foods are generally good in the fridge for at least one week after the sell-by date. In the freezer, they may be good for a year.

Best if used by, use-by date and guaranteed fresh dates can be used on many different products. You are most likely to see a “Guaranteed Fresh” date on baked goods. But these labels all mean that the food retains its maximum freshness, flavor and texture until the listed date. The product is likely to be edible for some time afterwards. 

Use good judgment when deciding if you should eat these foods. Rule of thumb: When in doubt, throw it out!

The expiration date is the one date you should take seriously. This is for real. Foods should be tossed after the expiration date. 

Most people see these dates and assume that once the date has passed, the food is no longer safe to consume. But it’s often not the case. "Expiration" dates are the most reliable guides as to when food is no longer fit for consumption. 


How to Buy Dated Foods with Confidence

So, any date but the “expiration date” has only a loose connection with the actual expiration of the food. The Food Safety and Inspection Service has a list of recommendations about how long food should be kept after purchase from the store. Suggestions include cooking or freezing poultry after one or two days, cured ham after five to seven days and eggs after three to five weeks. Again, once these items are frozen, the shelf life becomes much longer.

Of course, another way that people can reduce food waste is to be more conscientious about meal planning. This can also help you save a bundle when you shop if you plan meals around deals. If you know exactly what you're going to do with that head of lettuce or package of chicken when you buy it, chances are better that it won't end up getting lost in the shuffle. 


Make Food Last Longer

Another important part of reducing food waste is understanding food storage. See our Freezer Guide to understand everything you need to know about freezing foods. Once you put food in the freezer, you stop spoiling in its tracks.

You should also understand dry food storage guidelines. The storage temperature for canned goods can cut the shelf life in half. Generally, canned goods, included those in glass jars, are good for about one year. When stored above 65 degrees F, they are only good for six months. 

This means you need to rotate stock after the summer. Be nice and buy new food for the canned food drive during Thanksgiving, since they have been sitting in 80-degree or more temperatures all summer. Eat these foods to clear out your supply and give away the fresh stuff.


Jessica Bosari is an Internet copywriter and blogger for various publications and her own blog. You can read more of Jessica's work here.


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