Tuesday, May 8, 2012

What does an expiration date on a product mean?

Today's post was inspired by my mother.  Over the last few days, she has very lovingly helped me clean out my kitchen.  Being 28 weeks pregnant with a 2 year old toddler and working a full 40 hours a week, this has been a tremendous help and I am very grateful.  However, in the process of going through my "stuff," we got into a discussion regarding expiration dates.  She is of the notion that if something has an "expiration" date on it, it should not be used beyond that date.  Period.  However, I believe that as long as a product looks OK (no mold or discoloration), does not have any noticeable odor (like rotting flesh or sour smell), then it is OK to use beyond the "expiration date."  I especially believe this to be true with "non-perishable" items such as spices or dried rice or beans.  I would, however, generally not think this of medication (prescription or non-prescription).

I've done a little bit of research and found some interesting facts about expiration dates.  The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) apparently does not require expiration dates (except for infant formula).  "There is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States. Although dating of some foods is required by more than 20 states, there are areas of the country where much of the food supply has some type of open date and other areas where almost no food is dated."  Today, however, most products have expiration dates.  Even products like bottled water now has an expiration date thanks to a 1987 law enacted by the state of New Jersey which required "all food products sold there to display an expiration date of two years or less from the date of manufacture."  The following post from mentalfloss does a good job explaining this law and it's effects.  New Jersey eventually repealed the two year requirement but most bottlers still use that as a guide.

The USDA generally uses four different designations for "expiration" dates.  They have a "sell by," a "best if used by (or before)," a "use by" and "closed or coded" dates.
1. If a product has a "sell by" date or no date, cook or freeze the product by that date.  The "sell by date" tells the store how long to display the product for sale.  You should buy the product before that date.
2. A "best if used by (or before)" date is recommended for best flavor or quality.  It is not a purchase or safety date.
3. If a product has a "use by" date use the product before that date.  It is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality.  The date is determined by the manufacturer.  These dates usually refer to best quality and are not safety dates.  "But even if the date expires during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality if handled properly and kept at 40 °F or below. "
4. "Closed or coded dates" are packing numbers used by the manufacturer.

Even eggs, apparently, can be used up to 3-5 weeks after purchase.  If stored properly, this time is usually well beyond the "sell by" date.  Low-acid canned foods can be used 2-5 years after purchase if stored in a cool, dry, place.  "Once a perishable product is frozen, it doesn't matter if the date expires because foods kept frozen continuously are safe indefinitely."  I'm not sure how that would taste, though.  The following link from the USDA website goes into greater detail of the points mentioned above.

Let's say that you have food that really has expired, the following link has some great ideas for using that food.  Even "expired" food can be used for another purpose.

What do you think?  Would you use a product past its "expiration" date?  I still stand by my notion that it is OK (within reason) to use a food product that is past its "expiration" date...

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