To Your Health

Do Food Expiration Dates Really Matter?

When to keep and when to toss packaged food.
Do Food Expiration Dates Really Matter?
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Here is a short guide to phrases in use today to help you figure it out:

Open Dating refers to the use of a calendar date as opposed to a code on a food product to help the store determine how long to display the product for sale. Manufacturers determine the date for consumers to know when the product can still be sold in a store.  In theory, open dating can help the purchaser know the time limit to purchase or use the product at its ‘best quality’ but as, manufacturers emphasize, it is not a safety date for food consumption.

Use By Date refers to the date the product has the most nutritional value, meaning the date when using after may compromise the levels of nutrients that may deteriorate. Infant formula is the only federally mandated product on the market today with a “use by” date. Less than half the states have legislation in place for “use by” dates with this meaning. A significant number of states leave this field completely unregulated.

Best Before and Enjoy By dates are a suggestion by the manufacturer of when the food is at its peak taste. If you want to know when your food will taste its best, go with this label.

Sell by date is designed to indicate a product is still fresh enough for a consumer to buy. It is up to you to decide when to chuck it.

Mark Strausman is the executive chef of Fred’s at Barney’s restaurant in New York. He assiduously follows expiration dates marked on products. He carefully points out the importance of understanding food safety as more of a relationship between time and temperature, than expiration dates on food, saying many people do not realize that the amount of time food spends in the danger zone (40 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit) is the main criterion they should use to evaluate a food’s safety, rather than total storage time. He says, “When food is left at high temperatures for too long or is otherwise compromised, an open date becomes essentially meaningless, but consumers may trust it anyway.” He gives the example of dairy products in summer. They may still have a valid expiration date, but may have “turned” if left outside the refrigerator in the heat for a time.

Harley Stokes, a food quality consultant at Tufts University, says to check the freshness dates on prepackaged, ready-to-eat foods, such as a sandwich or salad with meat in it. If these foods hang around too long, they can become covered with dangerous bacteria called listeria, which actually multiply in the refrigerator.

An interesting new food product venture is underway by Doug Rauch, the former president of Trader Joe’s chain of food stores. He will begin selling expired food products to consumers at a store due to open in this May in Dorchester, Vermont, called The Daily Table. Rauch is targeting the 15 percent of American households who are 'food insecure'—people who are unsure where their next meal will come from. He sees a win-win situation for stores and consumers by matching up food with expired “sell by” dates for people who might otherwise not have access to healthy food. He maintains that many of these foods, even if they are no longer at peak taste levels, are better quality than the junk food they are now purchasing. Participating supermarkets will get a tax deduction for donating food to The Daily Table that they cannot otherwise sell.

While we hope for more simple food date labeling, save some cents using your common sense before you discard that expired yogurt.

To Your Health!

For federal regulations and a chart on safe food storage for meat, poultry and eggs go to:

http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/food-labeling/food-product-dating/food-product-dating

For comprehensive information on state by state of requirements and the Food Labeling Study go to:

http://www.nrdc.org/food/files/dating-game-report.pdf

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