And I have lived to tell about it. Now I know why.
It turns out that those dates don’t mean what we think they do. Not only that, In a recently released report about food expiration dates, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) claim that the current system of labeling contributes to misinterpretation by consumers leading to Americans throwing away $165 billion worth of food annually — much of it still safe and edible.
The first thing to know about those printed-on dates is that they are largely unregulated. The NRDC suggests interpreting them this way:
- Production date or Pack date– The date on which the food product was manufactured or placed in its final packaging
Sell by date– A date used by retailers for stock control, leaving a reasonable amount of shelf life for the consumer after purchase
- Best if used by date or Use by date– An estimate of a date after which food will no longer be at its highest quality
- Freeze by date– A date before which manufacturers suggest freezing the product to maintain highest quality
- Enjoy by date– NRDC think this isn’t even useful to consumers
Source: National Resource Defense Council. The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America. September 2013.
The report drags on a bit from there, but here were my three biggest takeaways:
- Keep food sealed, frozen, and out of the danger zone, which the NRDC defines as 40 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit or 4 to 49 degrees Celsius. This link shows which raw foods go bad after just a couple hours in the danger zone
- Follow general storage guidelines based on the type of food (Like these from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), and take the printed manufacturer dates as suggestions
- Know how to tell if food has gone bad. For example, chicken gone bad smells like ammonia, and looks and feels slimy. Beef gone bad smells sour, feels sticky, and looks grayish.
And if you’re not sure, just call the FDA Food Information Line at +1 888-SAFE-FOOD. If your questions are turkey-related and it’s either November or December, call +1 800-BUTTERBALL.