What the Expiration Date Means
Expiration dates can be scary. I was helping a friend clean out her in-laws refrigerator the other day. First it was shocking to see how many items, especially in the door, were not weeks, or even months but years past the expiration date listed on the label. My friend was horrified that her in-laws weren’t dead from the food.
I realized it was time for some education.
Expiration Dates Explained
Let’s start with clarifying expiration dates themselves. In the past, manufacturers used up to ten different label phrases – this certainly added to confusion. Some of these labels referred to production dates, others referred to quality of product, others referred to when a product should be pulled from shelves or discounted even though the product was still safe. A year or so ago the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the two major trade associations for retailers and consumer products manufacturing, adopted standardized voluntary regulations to help clear up what product date labels really mean.
Now there are only two label phrases: “USE By” and “BEST If Used By”.
New Terms Explained
“BEST If Used By” describes product quality, where the product may not taste or perform as expected but is safe to use or consume.
“USE By” applies to the few products that are highly perishable and/or have a food safety concern over time; these products should be consumed by the date listed on the package – and disposed of after that date.
These changes may result in reduced consumer food waste. About 44 percent of food waste sent to landfills comes from consumers, and addressing consumer confusion around product date labeling could reduce total national food waste by just 8 percent.
Although this is a voluntary regulation most manufacturers have made the changes. The recommendation was for full compliance by the end of this summer.
Foods You Can Eat After the Expiration Date
Obviously I’m not a big fan of manufactured food products but that’s not to say that I don’t have a few emergency items in my pantry. I try and remember to occasionally use what we have but especially during the Farmer’s Market months it’s easy to forget. So, I try and clean the pantry out once a year (give or take) but I’ve learned that expiration dates are more about “best used by” than anything else.
Here’s a few items you probably can hang onto a little longer than the expiration date but try to plan a meal that will use them quickly:
- Eggs can last up to 3 weeks past the use by date. To check if the egg is still safe (without cracking it open) place in a bowl of water. If it sinks, it’s still safe; if it floats, throw it away. Or, hard boil them and make egg salad.
- Milk, because of the pasteurization process, can last up to a week longer than the expiration date. Or, make some ice cream. This of course isn’t true if you’re using raw milk.
- Hard cheese can last for up to three months past its expiration date. Even if you see some moldy spots, you can cut off the mold and eat the good parts. The same is not true for soft cheeses. Or, time for grilled cheese sandwiches.
- The date on boxed cereal just determines when the cereal is still at peak quality. It doesn’t “go bad” after the expiration date but it might begin to taste stale.
- Crackers, chips and cookies are similar to boxed cereal. Check for a bad smell (the oils go bad over time) and that they don’t crumble apart easily.
- Bread is usually good for up to two weeks past the expiration date if left on the counter. If you put bread in the refrigerator, it will keep fresh for up to another month. You can also freeze bread. Or, make croutons for salads, bread crumbs, stuffing, etc.
- Fruit juice that does not require refrigeration can last up to a year due to the ultra-pasteurization process.
- Most canned foods can be consumed for up to four years past the expiration date. But, if there are any dents, rust or leaking, don’t use.
- Frozen foods, since they are in ice-cold temperatures they are generally safe past the expiration date but may have freezer burn that won’t taste very good. (My mother always called freezer burn “flavor crystals” so in a money pinch, it’s probably safe to eat).
- Butter, if it’s about to expire put it in the freezer to keep it fresh longer. Use quickly after thawed though – perfect if you’re baking.
- Dry pasta can usually be used for up to another year past the expiration date. Or, add it to the expired cheese for great mac & cheese and top with bread crumbs from the expired bread.
Whenever in doubt though, use your senses. If it smells bad, looks funny, has an off color, etc. throw it out! It’s always better to be safe than sick but some items can be held longer than their expiration dates, especially if you aren’t too picky of an eater.