How to safely digest food packaging dates

Mary Ann Lienhart Cross 

In my columns I often write about seasonal foods or foods that go with the holidays. This week is different as I have been receiving many calls about confusion over food package labeling especially “sell-by”, “use-by” and “best-by” dates. The confusion over date labeling leads to billions of pounds of food waste every year. Most of food dating has to do with quality, not safety. More times than not, you are throwing away food that is still of good quality and safe.

Let’s begin with the “use-by” date. This label is aimed at consumers as a directive of the day by which the product should be eaten. This is mostly because of quality concerns, not because the item will necessarily make you sick if eaten past the “use-by” date. However, after the “use-by” date, product quality is likely to decrease much faster and safety could be lessened.

So, what is the “sell-by” date? This label is aimed at retailers and informs them of the date by which the product should be sold or removed from shelf life. This does not mean that the product is unsafe to consume after that date. Typically, one-third of a product’s shelf life remains after the “sell-by” date for the consumer to use at home.

The “best-by” date is a suggestion to the consumer on which date the product should be consumed to assure ideal quality. Two types of product dating may be shown on a product: “open dating” and “closed dating”. “Open dating” is a calendar date applied to a food product by the manufacturer or retailer. The calendar date provides consumers with information on the estimated period of time for which the product will be of best quality and helps the store determine how long to display the product for sale. “Closed dating” is a code that consists of a series of letters and/or numbers applied by manufacturers to identify the date and time of production.

For meat, poultry and eggs products under the jurisdiction of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), dates may be voluntarily applied provided they are labeled in a manner that is truthful and not misleading and in compliance with FSIS regulations. To comply, a calendar date must show both the month and day of the month. In the case of shelf-stable and frozen products, the year must also be displayed.

Having an understanding of the four food safety basic guidelines which are “clean”, “cool”, “cook” and “separate” is very helpful. To follow the “clean” guideline, wash your hands before and during cooking. Also, make sure to keep all cooking surfaces clean.

For the “cool” guideline, remember that your refrigerator should be 40 degrees F or colder. Keep pickled products, ketchup, mustard, salad dressing and similar products in the door. Store dairy foods, meat, produce and all foods that need to be kept really cold in the body of the refrigerator.

“Cook” means to use your eyes and a thermometer when cooking food. Don’t overcook food as you may lose food value and meat can dry out and become tough. When reheating those planned-overs, make sure they reach an internal temperature of 145 degrees F for red meats, 160 degrees for ground meats and 165 degrees for poultry.

The “separate” guideline starts in the grocery store and continues when you store food in the refrigerator and then prepare it. What you need to remember is that you should not mix raw food that you don’t plan on cooking with food that you are going to cook. This is the most common way that cross-contamination occurs.

If you have questions about food safety, contact the Purdue Extension Elkhart County office at 574-533-0554 or email lienhart@purdue.edu. The USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline is another helpful resource. They can be reached toll-free at 1-888-674-6854. The hotline is open year-round and can be reached from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET Monday through Friday. You can also email questions to MPHotline.fsis@usda.gov.

Mary Ann Lienhart Cross is health and human sciences educator with Purdue Extension Elkhart County. She can be reached at 574-533-0554 or lienhart@purdue.edu.

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