Expiration dates are one of those examples of just how inadequately the food industry communicates with its shoppers. One of the most difficult tasks when selecting our foods is trying to find a relatively cogent description of what expiration dates mean. Do you know the difference between labels that say "use by," "best by," "sell by," and "best if used before"? And do any of these phrases mean that if the date labeled is yesterday, you shouldn't consume it?
For example, if the date stamped on a package is Feb. 1, 2007, do you throw it out on Feb. 2?
The truth is that we are not talking about an exact science when it comes to freshness and food safety, and the reality is that the "sell by" label actually is more a guide for the store than for shoppers. It’s important to note that stores are not even legally required to remove outdated products from their shelves.
The most upsetting reality is that the government doesn't do a very good job of mandating the kinds of expiration information that ought to be on food labels. The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates packaged foods and drugs, actually requires a use-by or expiration date only on infant formula and some baby foods. The Agriculture Department, which regulates fresh produce and meats, requires labeling of the date only when poultry is packed at the farm. For all other foods, except dairy products in some states, freshness dating is strictly voluntary on the part of manufacturers.
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Here’s the top line: The validity and usefulness of an expiration date depends on the type of product. Meat, for example, might have a "sell by" date that is five days from now, but most of us keep our refrigerators at about 40 degrees — not 34 degrees, like we should — and therefore the meat that has a "sell by" date of five days from now may only last for two days in our home refrigerator. There are, of course, two solutions — eat the meat sooner or adjust your refrigerator so that it is colder. Confusing? Just wait.
The government system that allows manufacturers to add sell-by or use-by dates to their package without regulation creates a system that is at best dysfunctional and inconsistent and is, certainly, confusing. Sometimes that confusion can lead to illness or worse; last year, there were more than 5,000 deaths attributed to food safety issues.
With all the headlines about food safety over the past couple of weeks, we decided that it's time for a "Today" report on the things you need to know about freshness dating.
Most important is that you have to carefully scrutinize the package and select the items with the most recent dating — but also be sure to inspect the package to make sure it is in perfect condition, no bulging cans or jar tops, no leaky meat trays, no tears on the frozen package box.
Make sure when you shop that you shop the center of the store first — and choose perishable foods last. Remember that if you put the milk in your cart and walk around the store for another 20 minutes, then drive home for 20 minutes, and then take another five minutes to unpack your groceries and refrigerate the products — you may well have diminished the shelf life of that milk by two to four days.
Now let’s pick up some packages and see just what they mean:
The easiest way to decipher these is to call a manufacturer's toll-free number and ask. But that's not always possible, especially while you're shopping. Here are some basic guidelines you can follow to help figure out the codes yourself. Keep in mind that each manufacturer might follow a different procedure.
To illustrate, we'll use a box that has a code on the top of the box as — J528W3.
To find the manufacturer code, look near the expiration date or at the top of the package. Most codes are imprinted at the time of product manufacture, so look for an embossed or ink-jet series of letters and numbers.
The first letter, J, denotes the month the product was manufactured. Don't be confused — J does not mean January or June. Most food companies start their manufacturing year in June and start their coding with the letter A. That means that A is June, B is July, etc. The exception is the letter I, which is never used to avoid the possible confusion with the number 1. Counting the months, we find that J refers to February.
The first number, 5, refers to the last number in the year of manufacture. Since few foods have a 10-year shelf life, it's safe to assume that it refers to 2005.
The next two numbers, 2 and 8, are the exact day of manufacture: 28. So far, with J528, we have figured out that the manufacturing date was February 28, 2005. Remember that this is the date the product was made. It does not refer to the freshness or expiration date. Some products are manufactured two months or more before they are delivered to the supermarket.
Next we have the W. Here's where you have to call the manufacturer for clarification. Most times, it is a plant designation and tells us the city of manufacture. In this instance, for example, by calling the company we learned that W is their code for the company's West Chicago plant.
Last, we see a 3. Here again, check with the manufacturer. It often refers to a particular shift, crew or machine. Most times it means third shift.
We've deciphered the code! This package was made on February 28, 2005, in the company’s West Chicago plant on the third shift.
Why is that important? If you have a complaint about product quality, knowing how to read these codes can help the company track down the problem. And in the case of a product recall, you can immediately tell if you have a particular package of the recalled product.
But most importantly, you can tell how fresh a product is. You can calculate the time between manufacture and when you find it on the shelf and compare it to the freshness or sell-by date. Now you can really choose the freshest package.
General food storage tips
- Remember that the longer a product sits in your shopping cart, in your car and on the counter — the shorter its life.
- Once a package is opened, the date coding is meaningless! Use products as quickly as possible after opening.
- Always refrigerate leftovers in a covered container, and use within 2 to 3 days.
- Foods in cans and jars (especially condiments) should always be stored in a cool dark environment — and will actually increase their shelf life if refrigerated before opening. Many products have a warning to refrigerate after opening. Believe it! (Yes, even on peanut butter.) Best bet is 65 degrees or lower in your cupboard — more than that reduces the shelf life by 50 percent! Most unopened canned goods and jars will last up to a year. High acid products, like citrus fruits, fruit juices, pickles, peppers, sauerkraut, green beans, asparagus, beets, and all tomato products should be used within six months. Use a sharpie to write on the package when you purchased it.
- Never buy cans that are bulging, dented, rusted or show seepage around the seam.
- Some flour, grains or baking mixes contain dehydrated fats or leavening which will become rancid with time — always check the date; and after you open the package, place contents in a zip-lock type of bag.
- And remember: You cannot smell or taste the early stages of bacteria or mold. Don’t rely on taking a taste to see if a product is spoiled. By then, odds are it's way too late!
General Food Storage Guidelines:
These guidelines are offered for the best taste, flavor and texture; and consuming product after these time frames is not recommended.
- Bacon: 2 weeks unopened, 7 days after opening
- Eggs: 4 weeks after pack date, refrigerated
- Fresh beef, veal, pork: 3 to 5 days
- Ground meat, poultry: 1 to 2 days
- Ham, cooked: 7 days unopened, 3 days after opening
- Hot dogs: 2 weeks unopened, 7 days after opening
- Luncheon meat: 2 weeks unopened
- Milk: 7 days after “sell-by” date, 3 to 5 days after opening
- Poultry (fresh): 1 to 2 days
- Poultry (cooked): 3 to 4 days unopened, 3 to 4 days after opening
- Sausage (uncooked): 1 to 2 days
- Sausage (cooked): 3 to 4 days unopened, 3 to 4 days after opening
Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at SuperMarketGuru.com.