If it smells good, eat it …. Right?
I will admit that I am no expiration date watcher. Never have been. Primarily, this is because food never seems to last very long in my vicinity, but also because I was raised to think for myself. Other people are alarmist and companies are terrified of culpability in the case of little Timmy vs. the yogurt that smells like a foot. And so I bravely sniff, taste, and sometimes gag my way through life—and my refrigerator. But there are some foods that are dated for a reason, and if you learn how to read not just the dates, but all the other information your grocery store is trying to hide from you, there’s a lot to be gleaned from that particular hedgerow.
If it seems like dating of food products is inconsistent store to store and brand to brand, it is. The federal government requires dating on infant formula and nothing else. Every other date you see is either state-mandated, and therefore open to much variation, or put there by the manufacturer more so to protect the brand’s reputation than the consumer’s health. In fact, there’s a lab for that.
The National Food Lab (NFL, seriously) literally puts foods on shelves for days, weeks, and months and then takes it off to test it. As the food ages, it is scored for taste and manufacturers base their dates on those scores.
Here are the definitions of commonly used food dating language as defined by the United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
Sell by means exactly that. Product should be purchased before this date, but can be used most of the time for about a week after, depending on the nature of the item and how it is stored.
Best if used by has no indication of when something will be inedible. This language only indicates when quality may start to deteriorate.
Use by relates more to the safety of the product, but products are often useable seven to ten days after this date.
The FSIS has great suggestions here for how long meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and more should be stored at home before consuming. These are fairly self-explanatory, but a little learned observation in your own super market can add even more information to your inferences.
Manufacturer dates, for example, assume proper temperatures will be held through shipping, processing, and storage from the warehouse to the store. If you see a refrigerated product sitting out on the sales floor waiting to be packed into a refrigerator but not actively being moved, that’s bad news for those dates. Those yogurts aren’t the ones that will last a week past their sell by.
Sales and discounts are also a dead give away for dating issues. When a manufacturer or even a grocery store realizes that a product is short-dated or likely to expire before it’s expiration, it has two choices: it can recall the product or sell it at a dramatically discounted price in hopes that it will sell and be consumed faster than normal. This doesn’t mean you must fear every sale, but a shockingly good deal is probably that good for a reason.
Some general guidelines to run with:
Items with a better-than-average refrigerator life span: fermented foods like yogurt and Saur kraut, anything pickled, cured meat, eggs
Items with a below-average refrigerator lifespan: ground meat and offal, fish, uncured sausage
So in the end, dates are about quality; safe is in the eye of the beholder . . . or smeller as it probably ends up. Food safety concerns are less about spoilage and more about storage and cooking. So be your own person—just cook the meat to temperature won’t you?