Understanding Food Expiration Dates So You Don’t Waste Food

The outbreak of COVID-19, a disease caused by the new coronavirus, has led many Iowans to focus on stocking their pantries and freezers. For the best results, nutrition and wellness state specialists with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach recommend always following a simple rule: First in, first out.

According to Sarah Francis and Ruth Litchfield, this rule means when putting newly purchased food away, move the older food items to the front and the newer food items to the back. This method helps lessen the likelihood of older food items getting lost in the back of the cupboard or freezer.

“What happens when you’re preparing your recipe and you go to use the food and the food packaging date has passed? Do you toss it or keep it? Unfortunately, current food packaging dates can lead to unnecessary food waste,” Francis said.

Dates on food packages usually refer to quality, not safety. Francis and Litchfield offer a list of common food packaging dates and what they mean.

Use-by, best by, best before, best if used by, enjoy by

These dates are quality dates, not safety dates. These dates are often found on shelf-stable items like peanut butter, canned goods and condiments. These dates are provided by the manufacturer. They indicate when the food will remain at its best quality. After this date the quality may change, but it is still safe to eat. Commercially canned foods are good for three to five years past the “best if used by” date. Do not use the items if they have an off odor, appearance or flavor.

See refrigerated condiment safety tips from ISU Extension and Outreach Words on Wellness blog to learn more about how long you can use these items after they are opened.

Sell by

These dates are commonly placed on perishable foods like milk, poultry, eggs, meat and seafood. These dates inform stores about how long they can display the food product. After this date, stores are not allowed to sell the product. However, if you follow safe food storage guidelines you can still use the product past its sell-by date. Meats, poultry and seafood can last one to two days past the date. An unopened milk will last for about one week after its sell-by date. Shell eggs are stable for three to five weeks in the refrigerator while pasteurized liquid eggs can last three to five weeks unopened or be frozen for longer storage.

Stamped date on package

This date is a quality date, not a safety date. It helps the store know how long to display the food product. It is commonly found on pre-packaged produce, chips and bread. It best to consume produce within one week.

Expires on

This is a safety date and is regulated by the federal government. This type of date is often found on some baby foods and baby formula. Eat the food before this date. After this date, don’t use it. Throw it away.

“What should you do if you have food quickly approaching one of these dates? Consider freezing the food as an option. For example, bread and cheese can be easily frozen,” Litchfield said.

Visit the National Center for Home Food Preservation for a list of foods that do not freeze well. For information on how to freeze various foods visit https://food.unl.edu/freezing or download “Preserve the Taste of Summer – Freezing: Fruits and Vegetables” from the Extension Store, https://store.extension.iastate.edu/product/4369.

For more information about the shelf life of various food products, explore https://www.stilltasty.com/

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