Cooking Tips · Techniques

What do those food dates mean?

If you were to look through my pantry or refrigerator, you would certainly find some items that were beyond their “Best By” dates. Would I find the same if I snooped through your pantry? What do these dates mean and are they really that important? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

You may not realize this but according to the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), they do not require any food dating apart from infant formula.

So, why do we have these dates? Manufacturers provide dates to help consumers and retailers determine the quality of the food, not the safety.

They go further and state that “Most shelf-stable foods are safe indefinitely. In fact, canned goods will last for years, as long as the can itself is in good condition (no rust, dents, or swelling). Packaged foods (cereal, pasta, cookies) will be safe past the ‘best by’ date, although they may eventually become stale or develop an off flavor. You’ll know when you open the package if the food has lost quality. Many dates on foods refer to quality, not safety”.

They continue by explaining that “foods that have been in the freezer for months may be dry, or may not taste as good, but they will be safe to eat. So, if you find a package of ground beef that has been in the freezer more than a few months, don’t throw it out. Use it to make chili or tacos. The seasonings and additional ingredients can make up for loss of flavor.”

There are different terms you will see on food items that need some clarification.

Sell By – This date is more for retailers than consumers, telling them how long to leave something on the shelf. After this date, many stores put these items in the Bargain section. You should regularly look through this section in your store as you can get some perfectly safe food items for great prices.

Best If Used By/Before – This date tells you that the food may be of higher quality or have better flavor if you use it before that date.

Use By – Manufacturers use this date to tell the consumer when to expect the product to be at its best quality and you might expect some deterioration in quality after this date.

Freeze By – A date that tells you when to freeze a food item to retain its quality.

Now, these recommendations presume that you are handling and storing the food items properly. If you do notice any signs of spoilage such as off-odors, flavors or texture, it should be thrown away.

Another interesting tidbit from the USDA is that what causes food spoilage are molds, yeasts and bacteria. Viruses do not cause foods to spoil as they cannot grow in food. As for bacteria, there are what are called pathogenic bacteria, which are the type that cause illness. There are also spoilage bacteria. The latter causes food to spoil but do not cause illness.

There are all sorts of charts in books and online with recommended storage times for different food items. An easier way is to the FoodKeeper website and app from the USDA. Just input the item and it tell you how long you should keep it. For instance, if you input Apple Cider Vinegar, it tells you

For freshness and quality, this item should be consumed within:
if in the pantry from the date of purchase

The USDA also tells us that it is fine to donate items past their printed dates. As they say, “The quality of perishable products may deteriorate after the date passes but the products should still be wholesome if not exhibiting signs of spoilage. Food banks, other charitable organizations, and consumers should evaluate the quality of the product prior to its distribution and consumption to determine whether there are noticeable changes in wholesomeness.” For more info on this topic, see this link on their website.

I hope this information makes you feel better about not throwing away every food item that hits its “best by” date. There is way too much food waste going on in our country and this Tip may help you decrease that just a bit.