Have you ever stood in the kitchen looking at a date on a food package and wondered if it is safe or not and if you should throw it away? About 30% of our food supply is lost or wasted at home and in stores, according to the USDA. One of the sources of this food waste arises from consumers and retailers throwing away wholesome food because the date on the label has passed.

To reduce consumer confusion and wasted food, the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service recommends food manufacturers and retailers use a “Best If Used By” date. Research shows that this phrase conveys to consumers the product will be of best quality if used by the date shown, but it can still be safely eaten after this date.

While this phrase may be the one best understood, manufacturers and retailers continue to use many others. You’ve probably seen a variety of these phrases associated with dates on food labels. What do they all mean? Are the products safe to eat after these dates? The following labels are all used, but none of them reflect a food safety date. Here is a brief explanation.

• “Best If Used By/Before” indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality.

• “Sell By” tells the store how long to display the product for sale.

• “Use By” indicates the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality.

• “Freeze By” indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality.

You may have wondered about all those numbers and letters found on canned foods. These refer to the date and/or time they were manufactured, and aren’t meant for the consumer to interpret. If there is a date on a can, it’s a “Best If Used By” date.

When it comes to food safety, most of us are usually concerned with milk, eggs, meat, poultry and seafood. Milk, when purchased prior to a sell-by date, should be safe to drink for five to seven days after the date on the carton. Of course, this assumes the milk has been at a temperature of 40 F or below from the time it is packaged through the time spent in your refrigerator.

Shells eggs are safe to eat up to one month after the date on the carton. This date will be either a pack date or a sell-by date. Egg cartons with the USDA grade shield must display the “pack date.” This is the day the eggs were washed, graded and placed in the carton and is a three-number code representing the day of the year. For example, Jan. 1 is 001 and Dec. 31 is 365. When a “sell-by” date appears on a carton with the USDA grade shield, it must be within 30 days of the pack date. Store eggs in their original carton and place it in the coldest part of your refrigerator, not in the door, where it tends to be warmer. Once you hard-boil eggs, eat them within one week.

When you return home with fresh meat, poultry and seafood, place these products in the refrigerator, 40 F or below, and use within two days. If you don’t plan to use within two days, repackage and place the items in the freezer for up to one year to maintain their safety. When repackaging, use butcher or freezer paper, or a food vacuum sealer, to help maintain the quality of most foods. You can keep unopened packages of lunch meat for up to two weeks. Once you open the package, eat within two to three days. For those meats sliced at a deli, eat within one week.

In general, the shelf life of high-acid canned foods, such as tomatoes, grapefruit and pineapple, can be stored on the shelf for 12 to 18 months. Low-acid canned foods, such as meat, poultry, seafood and most vegetables, will keep two to five years on the shelf, if the can remains in good condition and has been stored in a cool, clean, dry place. Dents in cans can cause spoilage, especially if the dent is on a seam. Throw away cans that are dented, leaking, rusting or bulging.

Common sense is always important. If a food develops an off odor, flavor or appearance, you should avoid consuming it.

As far as donating foods that have passed their dates, check with your local food bank or pantry to determine what they are willing to accept.

For more information about food safety, call your local Penn State Extension office or check out Penn State Extension’s home food safety page at https://extension.psu.edu/food-safety-and-quality/home-food-safety.

The USDA Food Keeper website and app is a great resource to help determine shelf life of many foods. https://www.foodsafety.gov/keep-food-safe/foodkeeper-app.

The USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline is available from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854).

Mary Alice Gettings is a Penn State Extension educator in Beaver County.

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