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When Food Expires: Understanding Expiration Dates

Milk Expiration

 

How many times have you opened the fridge, taken out the milk, peeked at the expiration date and then removed the cap for a sniff test? If you are like me, this is a regular occurrence with not only milk, but most food. I’ve found that some expiration dates mean very little; my organic milk seems like it can last at least a week past its expiration date. For other foods, such as cottage cheese, the date seems very accurate (there is nothing like sour cottage cheese). For other foods it is more difficult to know. How long will my can of corn stay good? What about the Gouda cheese with the little mold spots on it? Can I just cut the spots off? What about “sell by” dates and “use-by dates?” What about the stuff in my freezer?

What do all the different types of dates mean?

Dating methods are generally divided into three categories: safety, quality, and other.

Safety - Dates under this category refer to how long the food can be safely consumed without worry of spoilage.

Quality - Dates under this category refer to how long the food product will be at its best quality and optimum freshness. They are not indicators of when the food will spoil.

 

Other - The dates in this category are provided for the assistance of the manufacturer, packing company, vendor, distributor, or store personnel.

  • Can Codes - Canned goods often have a stamped code containing a series of letters and numbers. Part of this code contains a date. The information in the codes allows for tracking, shipping, identification in the event of a recall, and rotation of stock in the warehouse.

 

As if all these dating options weren’t confusing enough, where you live can determine what type of date may be on your foods.

United States

Date stamping is only required by law for infant formula, although most manufacturers still do provide a date of some kind on other foods.

European Union

Most pre-packaged foods require a date of “minimum durability.” Use-By dates are required for highly perishable foods which may pose a health threat.

Australia & New Zealand

An “appropriate durability indication date is required.” Foods with a Use-By date mean the food cannot be legally sold or consumed after that date. Foods with Best Before dates may still be sold after the date (but the food item may not retain some of the specific qualities claimed on the product).

An important factor to remember when discussing food expiration is food storage. Foods requiring special storage (e.g. refrigerator or freezer), must be labeled as such. If the food is not stored correctly, the date on the food item no longer applies. So when you accidently put the creamy salad dressing in the cupboard instead of the fridge, throw it away!

So what about that moldy cheese?

The answer depends on the type of cheese. Mold can be toxic and grows quickly with tiny tentacle-like roots. If you have a hard or semi-soft cheese, you can cut the mold off with a knife. Cut well below the moldy spot (1 inch/2.5 cm) and make sure your knife avoids touching the mold so it doesn’t contaminate the rest of your cheese. Examples of acceptable cheeses include: American, cheddar, Colby, gruyere, parmesan, Romano, stilton and Swiss. Soft cheeses or those which are crumbled, pre-sliced, or shredded, should not be consumed if mold is found. Discard moldy blue cheese, brie, camembert, chevre, cream cheese, feta, Monterey Jack, mozzarella, Muenster, Neufchatel, ricotta and Roquefort.  

What about mold on other types of foods?

For most foods, if you see mold, throw it away. The main exceptions are certain types of cheese (see above), firm fruits & vegetables, hard salami, and dry-cured hams. The method is the same: cut off at least 1 inch/2.5cm around and below the moldy spot and don’t touch the mold with your knife or cutting board to avoid cross-contamination. Firm fruits and vegetables include cabbage, bell peppers, carrots and many root vegetables. Discard moldy: lunch meat, hot dogs, cooked pasta, casseroles, soft cheese, yogurt, sour cream, cottage cheese, jams & jellies, soft fruits & veggies, bread, baked goods, peanut butter, nuts and beans.

How long do canned foods stay good?

Can ExpirationHigh acid foods such as tomatoes and fruit will keep for up to 18 months. Most other canned goods (including meat and poultry) generally keep for 2 to 5 years if they are stored appropriately. All canned goods should be stored in a cool, dry place. Never store your cans above the stove, under the sink, in a damp garage or basement, in your car, or any place exposed to high or low temperature extremes. Most canned goods will stay good in the refrigerator for about 3-4 days after opening. Once opened, the air reacts to the metals and may leach onto your foods so always move them to another container for storage.  

Please note that you should always check your can before opening. If the can shows any signs of deterioration such as leaking, bulging, large dents, bulging lids, foul odor, or sprays liquid when opening, throw it away as it may be contaminated with a toxin called Clostridium botulinum (botulism). If you suspect botulism, DO NOT TASTE THE FOOD! This toxin is very rare, but is extremely dangerous and may even cause death.

How long does meat last?

Chicken ExpirationIf the product has no date, here are some guidelines for how long you have until you must cook or freeze the item. Keep in mind that this assumes you are refrigerating your meat at a minimum of 40°F/4°C.

  • 1-2 days after purchase - Fresh or uncooked products such as poultry, sausage (from pork, beef, turkey), liver, tongue, brain, kidneys, heart or chitterlings
  • 3-5 days after purchase - Fresh beef, veal, pork and lamb
  • 3-5 weeks - Eggs 
  • 3-4 days unopened - Processed cooked poultry and sausage (3-4 days after opening)
  • 2 weeks after purchase - Bacon and hot dogs (1 week after opening)
  • 2 weeks unopened - Vacuum-packed dinners and luncheon meat slices (3-4 days after opening)
  • 6 weeks unopened - Dry, hard sausage is shelf stable and does not require refrigeration (3 weeks after opening)
  • 2-5 years - Canned meats (see canned foods question above) or 3-4 days after opening

 

What about the food in my freezer?

When foods are kept in your freezer at a minimum of 0°F/-18°C they remain safe indefinitely. However, over time, the quality of the food will diminish. Look for signs of ice crystals and freezer burn which may indicate your food quality is on the decline. For best taste and quality, follow these guidelines:

Processed meats including bacon, sausage, ham, hotdogs and lunchmeats will last 1-2 months. You’ll have 2-3 months to eat those frozen casseroles, soups, stews or cooked meat. Frozen dinners, cooked poultry, and uncooked ground meat will last about 3-4 months. For the food that lasts the longest in your freezer, you are looking at egg whites/egg substitutes and uncooked meat such as wild game, roasts, steaks, chops, and whole poultry & parts all of which will last up to one year.

Wait, I don’t see my food listed here, it doesn’t have a date, and I don’t know if it’s still good! What do I do?

As you can see, there is no simple answer as to when your food actually expires. The best test is to simply use your senses. The first test is the visual test. Look for discoloration, spotting, and mold. The second is the smell test. Take a sniff. You’ll know if it’s off. The third is the touch test. Does it feel soggy, mushy or have a totally different consistency than it used to have? The fourth and final is the taste test. If all your other tests are telling you the food is okay, take a tiny bite to confirm the food does not taste off or leave a “sparkling” or “bubbly” sensation in your mouth. Take note that the taste test does NOT apply to canned goods! Botulism is just not worth it folks no matter how good that bulging can of chili looks. If it fails any of the four tests, your food should be in the trash. If it passes, enjoy!

Article Sources:

United States Food & Drug Administration
United States Department of Agriculture
Food Standards Agency
Food Standards Australia New Zealand
New Zealand Food Safety Authority


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