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Monday, October 13, 2008

Demystifying Food Expiration Dates

Ever wonder what those expiration dates on foods mean? Is it the last date to buy it? Is it the last date to eat it? Is it safe to eat it after the expiration date?

In these difficult financial times, it pays to be efficient with food to make our dollars stretch as far as possible. I read an article over the weekend in Consumer Reports that led me to a
USDA fact sheet that answered many of my questions regarding product dating.

Our girls had asked if it was safe to eat individual yogurts after the expiration date on the package. Although I didn’t get a specific answer for yogurt from the USDA, I did find valuable information on the fact sheet:

- we should keep refrigerator temperatures 41 degrees or below
- eggs can be used 3-5 weeks after the date on the carton
- baby formula should be used by the “use by” date for nutritional value and because old formula clumps and doesn’t go through the bottle nipple well
- the more a food is handled (for example deli meats being taken in and out of the fridge, handled by several people), the more likely it can be contaminated (as opposed to a single-use serving of yogurt)
- the “Best if Used By” date refers to flavor and quality, but is not necessarily a safety date
- canned items that contain high-acid foods (tomatoes, grapefruit, pineapple, etc.) can be kept for 12 to 18 months
- low-acid canned foods (meat, poultry, fish and most vegetables) can be kept for 2 to 5 years, if the can is in good condition and is stored in a cool, dry, and clean place.

The fact sheet also explains the difference between the terms “use by,” “sell by,” and “best if used by.” In addition, it displays charts for meat safety.

Even though I didn’t get my yogurt question answered by the USDA, the Food Goddess of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution did some research and came up with:

“While the National Dairy Council recommends a one-week refrigerated shelf life for yogurt, both Dannon and Stonyfield Farm imply a much longer life. Both clearly state the stamped date is not the date that the yogurt will "expire" or "go bad." It's more of an optimum eating period.”

Consumer Reports, November 2008, p. 11
United States Department of Agriculture

The Food Goddess, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Do you have suggestions on food safety?