Decoding food labels is difficult indeed. Have you ever looked at the date labels on your cans, jars, boxes and cartons of food? The number of ways dates are expressed is dizzying:
- “Sell By”
- “Best By”
- “Use By”
- “Enjoy By”
- “Expired” or “Exp”
- A readily understandable date but with no explanation
- A series of numbers that may be a date, but that are indecipherable, with no explanation
- Other permutations and combinations
And then, there are the cans, boxes and cartons with no dates.
I’ve always thought that throwing out cans and boxes of food with old dates was a mitzvah or good deed. Especially as I get toward the Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashanah, I feel the urge to “binge clean” my pantry and refrigerator the way other people binge watch on Netflix. But as I began my yearly review of can, bottle, and box top dates, I wondered what all these dates mean – or don’t.
Next time I think about throwing out food or I see the grocery clerk throwing cans into a dumpster, I’ll remember these:
5 Crucial Food Date Label Facts
- There is no uniform (federal) set of requirements for date labeling on food, except for infant formula. There are voluntary federal guidelines and some states and even cities have food date labeling laws, but 9 states do not require date labels on any foods.
- A “Sell By” date tells you nothing about how long you, the consumer, can safely keep the item or when it will no longer be of the highest quality. For example, the USDA (Department of Agriculture) says that for “highest quality” you should use eggs within 3 to 5 weeks after you purchase them in a store (always keeping them properly refrigerated) and that expiration of the “Sell By” date on the egg carton during that period is meaningless to the consumer. After that 3-5 week period, the eggs may still be usable and tasty, even if not of the “highest quality.”
- In some states, food can be sold after its “Sell By” date or “Best if Used By” date.
- There is no uniformity as to what a date label means in any event. If you don’t know how the manufacturer defines “best,” how does it help you to know when the items is “Best By?”
- “There is no direct correlation between food safety and date labels,” according to the Harvard Law Food and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council in their comprehensive report on food expiration dates. The USDA is even more explicit with regard to canned foods. “Canned foods are safe indefinitely as long as they are not exposed to freezing temperatures, or temperatures above 90 °F (32.2° C). If the cans look ok, they are safe to use. Discard cans that are dented, rusted, or swollen. High-acid canned foods (tomatoes, fruits) will keep their best quality for 12 to 18 months; low-acid canned foods (meats, vegetables) for 2 to 5 years.”
Does all this mean that you should ignore all the date labels?
Maybe not. But it does mean that you shouldn’t necessary throw something away, just because it is past its “Best By” date.
One helpful resource in deciding how long to keep food is a database hosted by the Food Marketing Institute that allows you to search for the shelf life of a particular food by the type of food or category, both unopened and after opening.
I’ll still check the dates on my food labels, even if only from force of habit. I just hope my family isn’t looking over my shoulder as I blithely ignore the next “Best By” last month or even 6 months ago as I prepare dinner.