Is that bargain food safe to eat?

You find a gallon of juice at the grocery on megasale. Only problem is, the “sell by” date is the day after tomorrow; the stuff that’s not on sale has a sell-by date sometime in the middle of next week. Will you have to throw out whatever juice you can’t gulp down in a day and a half? Over at Scribbit, a lively discussion of the pros and cons of Costco is going on; blog proprietor Michelle observes that Costco’s milk often has an expiration date so close to the purchase date she ends up throwing sketchy stuff away.

Depends on what the date actually is. Take a close look at it: does it say “sell by,” “use by,” or “expiration”? Or something else?

Food is not slated to spoil by its “sell by” or “use by” date. Truth to tell, if it’s been stored properly it may be OK even after its “expiration” date, though you might not want to give it to infants or folks with serious health problems. According to Consumer Reports, here’s what those dates mean:

Use by, best if used by, or quality assurance: These estimate the period in which a product is at the height of its delectability. After the date given, it may be less flavorful, but it’s still safe to eat.

Sell by or pull: This tells the retailer when the product should be taken off the shelf. But it’s still safe to eat by the “sell by” date. This date figures in the amount of time most people might be expected to store the product at home. According to CR, milk is usable for a good seven days after the sell-by date.

Package or pack date: The date the product was packaged. It has no direct relationship to the date the product is likely to spoil. Comparing package dates of products on the shelf may allow you to buy the most recently processed item, which is nice, but the older one is not necessarily about to spoil.

Expiration date: For food, this is the term that indicates food may be spoiled. CR says an exception is eggs, which can be used three to five weeks after the stamped-on expiration date. Remember, too, that for other products the “expiration date” is often just a marketing gimmick to induce you to buy new packages of perfectly OK products (such as sunscreen) at regular intervals.

The way a food is stored is crucially important to how long it stays edible. And you may not know. For example, last summer I made an emergency run to the nearby Albertson’s to buy some butter. What should I find but that the cooler where the butter and margarine were stored was out of order! It clearly had been out of order for quite some time: the room-temperature butter was soft, and the other dairy products in the case were warm and kept that way under the display case’s lights.

I didn’t buy it, and on the way out (annoyed that now I would have to burn gas to make a six-mile round-trip traipse to buy a single package of butter) I mentioned the broken case and room-temperature dairy products to the store manager. She just shrugged and said a repairman was supposed to show up that day. It was clear she had no intention of removing the products—as soon as the cooler was repaired, shoppers would have no idea the butter, margarine, sour cream, cream cheese and other products had been sitting at 80 degrees for many hours.

So, as in most cases, we’re reduced to having to use common sense. Give any food item the sniff test, no matter when it’s dated. Does it smell fresh? Any whiff of the rancid about it? And do you see any sign of mildew or dried-up spots? Does the can bulge? Is the can dented? If so, out it goes.

Don’t assume the dates on a product necessarily mean you have to consume it by that date, or that it’s still safe by that date, either. When in doubt, throw it out.

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Michelle at Scribbit November 2, 2008 at 7:33 pm

Well actually I’ve never just thrown out food based on the expiration or sell/use by dates alone–I didn’t say that at all. But I will throw it out if it’s smelling bad which tends to happen right around that expiration date, give or take a day.

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