If you’ve ever rummaged through your refrigerator and tossed food in the trash because the sell by date had passed, chances are you needlessly wasted good food; the same also applies to the canned food in your pantry.
With the exception of infant formula and some baby foods, food expiration dates printed on food packages and cans have little meaning, and are unregulated by the federal government.
That’s because the dates are only suggestions by the manufacturer for when the food is at its peak quality, not when it is unsafe to eat.
Then they take the food off the shelf and place it in front of a highly trained panel of experts — the lab has 40 food tasters on staff — who check taste, smell and texture. The experts then assign the food number grades which decrease as the food gets older.
John Ruff, president of the Institute of Food Technologists in Chicago, says the companies that sell this food review those grades and then decide on a grade to protect the reputation of their products.
“If the product was designed, let’s say, to be a 7 when it was fresh, you may choose that at 6.2, it’s gotten to the point where [you] don’t want it to be on the market anymore,” he says.
“If it’s 6.0, would most people still find it reasonably good? Absolutely,” he says. “But companies want people to taste their products as best they can at the optimum, because that’s how they maintain their business and their market shares.”
Ruff says most products are safe to eat long after their expiration date, and adds even meat or milk that’s starting to spoil is not necessarily dangerous. “Very often, you won’t eat it because of the smell, and you probably won’t like the taste, but in a lot of cases, it’s unlikely to cause you illness,” he says.
It’s not the food that sat on the shelf too long that makes you sick, Ruff says. It’s the food that got contaminated with salmonella, listeria bacteria, or E. coli. And that food might not smell bad when it arrived in the store.
“In 40 years, in eight countries, if I think of major product recalls and food poisoning outbreaks, I can’t think of [one] that was driven by a shelf-life issue,” Ruff says.
In 1974, scientists at the National Food Processors Association in Washington, D.C., acquired several old cans of food. Janet Dudek was among the scientists who analyzed this food.
Her assignment was a can of vintage 1934 corn found in someone’s basement in California.
After opening the can, Dudek says the contents looked and smelled like ordinary canned corn. Analysis showed that it had most of the usual complement of nutrients — although there were lower levels of a few, such as vitamin C.
Results were similar for century-old canned oysters, tomatoes and red peppers in cans recovered from a sunken steamboat, buried in river silt near Omaha, Neb.
Food Dating Definitions:
This date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. Consumers should purchase the product before the date expires. Bread, milk, meat, poultry and cheese frequently have “sell by” dating.
Best if Used By or Before
This date is recommended for the best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date. This is the manufacturer’s recommended time span for best flavor, taste, quality or texture of a product. If the item is stored properly, eating it after the “use before” date is not an issue. You’ll find these on cereal boxes, crackers, mayonnaise, and most shelf-stable foods.
This date is the last date recommended day for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product. “Use By” refers to the date after which the products will lose peak quality. This has nothing to do with safety, but the overall texture, taste and consistency of a product.