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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

An Explanation of “Sell By,” “Use By,” and Other “Expiration” Dates


A recent study disclosed that a lot of people are throwing away a lot of food because they don't understand the freshness and/or safety labels.

My mother was one of those people. Let a product get within a day of its “sell by,” “use by,” “freshness guaranteed by” or whatever other date might have applied and that product was on its way to the trash. No questions asked.

But questions need to be asked because there is no standardization or regulation of these terms. People see “sell by” or “use by” on a label and they automatically assume that some benevolent government agency put it there for their health and well-being. Not always so. “Big Brother” might be everywhere else, but so far he and his cohorts at the FDA and the USDA are largely staying out of the pantry and the refrigerator. The only places the Feds jump into the labeling fray are in the areas of baby food and infant formula. Occasionally states may regulate dairy product labels. Other than that, it's all up to the manufacturer to decide.

Direct from the USDA website: “There is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States. Although dating of some foods is required by more than 20 states, there are areas of the country where much of the food supply has some type of open date and other areas where almost no food is dated.”

“Open dating” refers to an actual calendar date, as opposed to an alphanumeric code, regarding the freshness of a given product. It is not considered an indication of that product's safety, only of it's quality. I once came across some potato chips in a friend's pantry that were nearly three months “out of date.” My friends were still eating them. I tried a couple and they were godawful. Stale as a Borscht Belt comic's jokes. But if you were sufficiently palate-impaired, you could safely consume them.

“Closed dating,” by the way, is a reference to the aforementioned codes usually found on canned and boxed goods. They don't have anything to do with safety, either. They are just packing numbers used by the manufacturer.

So if Uncle Sam isn't behind the labeling, what do all those terms mean and what should we do about them?

“Sell by” tells the store when to pull the product. After the “sell by” date, the manufacturer will no longer guarantee that the taste, texture, or overall quality of the product will be as good as it was before that date. Is it still safe? Yep. Is it still “good?” That's up to your taste buds to decide. And the stores aren't really required to pull product that has exceeded the “sell by” date, although doing so is good business practice.

“Use by” indicates pretty much the same thing, except it's directed at the end user – you – rather than the middle man at the grocery store. What will happen if you use a product the day after its “use by” date? Nothing. Obviously, the older something gets, the less palatable it becomes, but with a few exceptions that we'll get to in a minute, you can still eat it if you've got the stomach for it.

“Best if used by,” “best if used before,” “freshness guaranteed until” – these are all phrases that relate to the product's taste, texture, and quality. None of them have any bearing on safety. If you can get those month-old muffins past your lips and tongue and down your gullet, your stomach will take 'em.

A lot of manufacturers of commercial baked goods operate “outlet” stores wherein the breads, cookies, pies, snack cakes, etc. that have been pulled from regular retailers for being near or slightly past their freshness dates are offered for sale at significant discounts. The products are still “good,” but the quality is often a crap shoot.

Now, the term “expiration date” is another matter. This one is usually more serious. If you have a product that actually “expires” on a particular date, then you need to pay attention to that date, lest you expire a day or two later. Things that “expire” are things that will become contaminated with bacteria or will be otherwise unhealthy after a set time.

Not a lot of things “expire.” I just did a quick glance around my refrigerator. My eggs and milk are “best by,” the heavy cream and cream cheese say “sell by,” my orange juice just has a date and a code number on it, and the packaged sliced ham says “prepare or freeze by.” The handful of cans I examined in the pantry either have “best by” dates or codes on them.

Here's the thing: all these dates apply to fresh, unopened packages. Once you open them, it's a whole different ball game. Let's say you've got some sandwich meat that, according to the package, is “best by” October 15. And today is October 14. But you opened it the day you bought it back on September 1. The color is a little gray, it feels a bit slimy, and it really doesn't smell so good. But it's okay, right? Because it hasn't “gone out of date” yet, right? Wrong.

“Oh-oh! My milk expired yesterday. I'd better dump it.” No, it didn't “expire.” It passed the “best by” date and it may be on the way out, but you need to check it before you just dump it. Give it a sniff. Does it smell okay? Give it a taste. Still acceptable? Now, if it's got lumps in it and it smells like old sweat socks, dump it without a second thought. But twenty-four hours or so won't usually make a big difference if the product was fresh to begin with and you've stored and handled it properly.

Here's a label a lot of people miss: “Refrigerate after opening.” It's there on the ketchup and the mayonnaise and the grape jelly and a lot of the things you'd expect it to be on. But it's also on the chocolate syrup. It's on the Gatorade bottle, too. Betcha missed that one. Why? Sugar! The perfect growth medium for all kinds of unpleasant microscopic critters. “So, if I guzzle down some Gatorade that I opened last week and it's been sitting in my car ever since, am I gonna turn up my toes?” Probably not, but depending on what cultures are growing in there, you might wish you had. Just sayin'.

Basically, there are two types of food products in the grocery store: perishable and shelf-stable. It shouldn't take a genius to figure out what “perishable” means but you never know, so here goes. “Perishable – adjective meaning subject to decay, ruin, or destruction; i.e. perishable fruits and vegetables.” So if the label on something perishable says “use by” or “best by,” you'd probably better pay attention to it. Or at least keep a closer eye on it than you would on something “shelf-stable” like cookies or crackers or potato chips. A cookie that's a month past its “best by” date may fall short of your expectations, but a similar piece of roast beef – “subject to decay, ruin, or destruction” – may cause you to spend a lot of time on your knees, if you know what I mean.

So I hate to say it, but when it comes to labels, the onus is on you. The government has no standards – a statement that can be taken many ways – and manufacturer's standards are whatever they want them to be. Throwing away “good” food because of an arbitrary date is foolishly wasteful, but keeping “bad” food past that same date in order to save a few pennies is simply foolish. Just remember that, provided the product is properly handled on your part, nothing is going to kill you at 12:01 a.m. on the day after it “goes out of date.” But at the same time, that's a good point at which to start watching and checking and testing and using common sense.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go clean out my refrigerator.

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