April 4, 2014 at 10:30 AM ET
If you’re confused about what those food expiration labels mean, you’re not alone. Most Americans are tossing safe and perfectly edible foods in the trash after looking at food “dates” that are vague at best.
You might be surprised to know that most food dating is voluntary, and not government mandated (except for infant formula and some baby foods), leading to a lot of variability in what these labels represent.
Understanding what these terms actually mean will help extend your food budget and avoid waste, while also helping to avoid food spoilage.
Here are some popular labels for fresh (refrigerated) items that are the most confusing:
However, these dates don’t apply after you’ve opened the package. While hot dogs may have a "use by" date of three months ahead, once you've opened the package, you only have about a week to eat the rest.
Food safety also extends to how and where you store your foods. Get a food thermometer to make sure foods are stored at 40 degrees or below. More perishable foods should be kept in the "meat drawer," which is usually the coldest section. It's OK to store condiments in the refrigerator door, but keep eggs, milk and yogurt in the main compartment for optimal freshness. Here are a few guidelines:
Here are USDA recommendations for food storage:
In the fridge:
In the freezer:
Be sure to double wrap foods in plastic wrap to avoid “freezer burn,” which doesn’t affect food safety but creates an odd texture and reduces flavor.
Remember that these are all approximate dates and will depend on optimal storage conditions including quick transport from the store to your home and refrigerating perishable items immediately after use.
The "smell test" is not a reliable because food can still be contaminated without a bad odor. But remember, when in doubt, throw it out!