Eat More, Waste Less – What Do the Dates on Food Mean?

In our culture of grocery stores and easy food access, we rely on food manufactures to let us know when the items we purchase will ‘expire.’  While simple enough in theory, what do the dates stamped onto food items really mean?  No one wants to get sick because they ignored the stamped date, but it is not wise to throw away food that is still just fine.

First, let’s take a look at the different kinds of stamps that you may encounter.  ‘Best by’ is a common one to find on canned goods.  ‘Sell by’ is often found on packaged meats.  ‘Enjoy by’ and ‘use by’ are also fairly common on grocery store shelves.

The problem with these dates is that there are not strict regulations around how they are used.  Many individuals assume that once the date has passed, the food is no longer fit for consumption, or they will develop a nasty bout of food poisoning.

Americans throw away between $250 and $450 worth of completely edible food on an annual basis, based solely on the stamp.  The stamp is merely what the manufacturer suggests as the peak quality of the food, after which the quality may go down, but the food will not make you sick or be dangerous.  The only foods that are required to have a ‘best before’ date by federal regulation are infant formula and some baby foods.

It can very well be assumed that the general confusion about food-date labeling leads to a lot of waste that ends up in the landfill.  So what is the best way to gauge if food is ‘good’ or ‘gone bad’?

Your best bet for gauging whether an unopened shelf-stable product with this type of date is still of satisfactory quality is to simply smell and examine it first. Always discard foods that have developed an off odor, flavor or appearance.

You should buy the product before the sell-by date expires. But you can still store it at home for some time beyond that date, as long as you follow safe storage procedures.

Food dating can be confusing, considering the lack of regulation surrounding the process.  Next time you come across a food item that is past the date, think before you toss it into the garbage.  You will save money as well as landfill space by determining with your senses if the item in question has indeed ‘gone bad’.