Food Safety & Expiration Dates

Being a person who was well into adulthood when these magical little dates that are often incorrectly called “expiration” dates began appearing on food, I’m often shocked at how people toss their food by these dates. It amounts to a huge amount of waste, and forgive me for saying so, because of ignorance. I use the term ignorance not as an insult, but by definition: “the state or fact of being ignorant :  lack of knowledge, education, or awareness.” Believe me, ignorance is NOT bliss! Ignorance is expensive, wasteful and extravagant.

Food Safety & What Those  Dates Mean
Food Safety & What Those Dates Mean

Now, I know I may be coming across as a bit harsh, and I’m guessing the readers who think so will likely be the ones who haven’t educated themselves about these dates, what they mean, how food goes bad and what the danger is. A lack of understanding of food safety is a dangerous thing!

Here’s your chance to mend your ways! So please take this with an “If the shoe fits, attitude.” By the way, dates on food, what they are, and how long food lasts past these dates is not MY opinion – it’s fact. While there may be variables, almost any food can be looked up at sites put up by reliable agencies, boards, etc. I’ve included some links below.

History: Sell by or Buy by dates:

Perhaps I can shed some light: Those dates evolved first as a way for the producers, manufacturers, shippers and retailers to rotate stock. “First in, first out.” It was very helpful to consumers when, in order to protect the consumer, by choice, and later by law in a few states (by 2013 there were 20 states that had some type of laws regulating dates) the producer/manufacturers began to use a “sell by” date instead of just a code on their packaging. I think it was in the late 80’s that these dates first began appearing where I lived.

A consumer was able to gauge by the date on the package how long it might be good in the home. It also helped head off buying something, getting it home, and finding out it wasn’t quite right. Sour milk – yuck! By the way, if you’re surprised by the dates of milk and yogurt in the next couple of paragraphs, or if you disagree…guess what, you’re wearing that shoe, right now, and really need to read on.

Let’s use milk as an example: If one buys milk with a suggested “buy by” date, one could expect that milk, if properly refrigerated and handled, to be good five to seven days after the date if opened, and up to 10 days if not. If properly handled! This is why dairies used to deliver once a week, at least until they started handling a large variety of products and came more often to make more money.

Another example is yogurt, which has an extremely long shelf life. Real yogurt really doesn’t need refrigeration – the refrigeration slows the fermentation process down to almost nil, which keeps the good bacteria from continuing to grow and those little cartons from exploding – it is not a safety issue, but a quality one.

The national dairy council gives unopened yogurt a very conservative date of two to three weeks past the “buy by” date. Since yogurt was originally made by placing camel milk in stomach intestines and riding around the dessert with the container tucked under the saddle, one can imagine it is normally a pretty safe product. Why only two to three weeks past the buy by date? Yogurt is mass-produced, and thereby quality is somewhat in question, and the dairy council operates on a better safe than sorry attitude. Probably a good thing.

Use By Dates or Best By Dates:

At some point we moved on to “use by” dates. This is a date that appeared only recently in the state I live in and this varies by state. I first noticed it on meats. I bought a package and two days later noticed a “use by” date – for the day before. I was astounded. Use by? What the heck is “use by??” I only had it for two days! I opened the package with dread to find the meat perfectly fine.

“Use by” or “Best By” are dates the manufacturer/producer puts on food to suggest to consumers that it is the date the product is “best by.” It is not some ominous date that means the product is or isn’t good, nor does it remove the manufacturer from any responsibility if the product is contaminated, even after the date. I will say this: if a product is within that date and shows any sign of spoilage, the stores in my area take it right back with NO questions asked. It’s very quickly, efficiently and quietly whisked away from the service desk counter and replaced. Later than that date and one will need to address the manufacturer.

When I buy my cars, do I consider the car to be bad and throw it out after the one-year protection date by the state, the lemon law? Ridiculous! What about when the manufacturer’s warranty is over? No way! Does it go “bad” at 10,000, 50,000 or 60,000 miles? One hopes to get good mileage from a car, and frankly, food is pretty much the same.

Whether it’s a jar of mayo, a piece of meat, a bag of rice, food isn’t perfectly good one day and not the next.

Nearing the Date:

Lately I’ve heard more and more stories, both from people I know and on the internet, of those throwing food away because it is NEARING the “EXPIRATION” date! Since there is no “expiration” date, see below, it boggles me. Scarier, still, is that some of these are people present as intelligent beings. Even worse, if they have these products it means they are probably cooking or at least feeding them to themselves and possibly others. People have to pass a safety test to drive. Maybe there should be one before they are allowed to buy and prepare food.

If I were speaking to friends who know and love me, and who I hope would forgive me for my bluntness, I’d say something like, “If you’re that stupid, you shouldn’t be cooking. You’re gonna kill someone. Because if you throw out food because you can’t judge if it is good or not, that means that you can’t judge if food is good or not! And if, indeed, you can’t judge whether food is good or not, you shouldn’t be cooking. That’s just down right dangerous.”

Perhaps some of this waste could be eliminated by putting it curbside with a citation in Craig’s list. Someone who knows better could come by and pick it up.

Expiration Dates:

I fooled ya! Because never, ever in all my years, and I’m pretty old, have I seen an “expiration” date on a food. Now, I will say that I’ve not looked at all foods nor have I lived in every state, so it may be possible there is an “expiration” date somewhere on some food. What does it mean? Expiration: “the fact of coming to an end or the point at which something ends. the last emission of breath :  death“. Now to say something is good on one day and bad the next is really the ultimate nonsense.

Safety:

So frankly, unless we’re talking about certain live cultures or you’re eating the heart out of a live cow or crawling around eating food off a vine, your food is already expired. The question, then, is simply a matter of education:

You need to know how to buy, transport, store and prepare food safely, and hopefully do so to keep it at its optimum freshness & nutritional value.

No Offense Intended, But Is This You?

If it is, learning more may save your life, the lives of your family and the lives of friends. At the very least, it may save all of the above from some nasty food poisoning or that nasty “stomach flu” that seemed to run through the family like…well, I’ll just avoid that pun about what, exactly, might be running.

Now, there are some who might think this harsh, but when the subject comes up about “food” dates, as it does sometimes among family or friends who cook or talk about shopping, and I hear someone going on about expiration dates or throwing out food because it went past the “buy by” date, I’m actually hesitant about eating at their homes. And here’s why:

They’ve betrayed to me that they don’t hold even the most basic knowledge of food safety or food storage and management. If they don’t, can’t or refuse to understand how food goes bad and when it is or isn’t good, how much do they know about food safety? I’m guessing next to nothing. Do they know about salmonella, e-coli? Perhaps. What about botulism? Maybe. Those are pretty well-known. But what about the rest of the 31 food related pathogens that cause illness, hospitalization and death?

If they ask me to their home for dinner, I’ll often throw in a quick and enthusiastic, “Even better, why don’t you guys come to MY house!” I’ve had a couple of cases of food poisoning and don’t plan on repeating the experience if at all possible! As a matter of fact, many cases of what we often think is the stomach flu is actually a foodborne illness, the Norovirus.

The CDC estimates “…that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases. The 2011 estimates provide the most accurate picture yet of which foodborne bacteria, viruses, microbes (“pathogens”) are causing the most illnesses in the United States . According to the 2011 estimates, the most common foodborne illnesses are caused by norovirus and by the bacteria Salmonella, Clostridium perfringens, and Campylobacter.”

Educate Yourself:

FoodSafety.gov – A great place to look for information about food recalls and all kinds of food safety issues. How long is soft cheese good for? What if there is mold on it? What kind of things can be lurking in your food?

FDA’s site on foodborne illnesses and contaminants. Includes how to buy, store and serve safe food. (See Bad Bug Book, below.)

The Center for Disease Control. CDC and Food Safety. If you don’t know yet what to be afraid of, read this site. There is no need to be afraid of food that isn’t expired because one doesn’t understand how the dating works, but there is a very REAL need to be afraid of bacteria and foodborne illness. You’ll find the most common ones ranked down to the least, as well as discussion and facts about the ones that make more people ill as well as the ones that kill the most people. Hint: they aren’t the same! You’ll also find out who is most at risk. It is simply a wealth of information.

Weill Cornell Medical College has an excellent PDF on how to tell if food is bad! Of course, as they say, when in doubt about food safety, throw it out. Hopefully, though, after reading the above, that will be because you are afraid of a safety issue, not just uninformed about dates.

Food Safety at the most basic. A bit of a fluff site, but it has a few cute videos to show your kids about food safety.

FDA’s BAD BUG BOOK – in my opinion, this should be required reading! If nothing else, perhaps look up the top contaminants and foodborne virus and bacteria.

Introduction for Consumers: A Snapshot (This is an excerpt from the Bad Bug Book)

Most foodborne illnesses, while unpleasant, go away by themselves and don’t have lasting effects. But you’ll read about some pathogens that can be more serious, have long‐lasting effects, or cause death. To put these pathogens in perspective, think about how many different foods and how many times you eat each day, all year, without getting sick from the food. The FDA and other Federal agencies work
together and with the food industry to make the U.S. food supply one of the safest in the world.

You also play a part in the safety of what you eat. When you read the consumer boxes, you’ll see that different pathogens can be risky in different ways, and that a safety step that’s effective against one might not be as effective against another. So what should you do? The answer is to follow some simple steps that, together, lower the risk from most pathogens.

 Washing your hands before and after handling food, and in between handling different foods, is one of the most important steps you can take. Do the same with equipment, utensils, and countertops.
 Wash raw fruits and vegetables under running water. These nutritious foods usually are safe, as you probably know from the many times you’ve eaten them, but wash them just in case they’ve somehow become contaminated. For the most part, the less of a pathogen on a food – if any – the less chance that it can make you sick.
 Cooking food to proper temperatures kills most bacteria, including Salmonella, Listeria, and the kinds of E. coli that cause illness, and parasites.
 Keep any pathogens that could be on raw, unwashed foods from spreading by keeping raw and cooked foods separate. Keep them in different containers, and don’t use the same equipment on them, unless the equipment is washed properly in between. Treat countertops the same way.
 Refrigerate food at 40°F as soon as possible after it’s cooked. Remember, the less of a pathogen there is in a food, the less chance that it can make you sick. Proper refrigeration keeps most types of bacteria from growing to numbers that can cause illness (although if a food already has high numbers of bacteria when it’s put in the refrigerator, it could still cause illness).

Here are a few examples of why following all of these steps is important. Some types of bacteria form spores that aren’t killed by cooking. Spores are a survival mode in which those bacteria make an inactive form that can live without nutrition and that develops very tough protection against the outside world. After cooking, the spores may change and grow into bacteria, when the food cools down.

Refrigerating food quickly after cooking can help keep the bacteria from multiplying. On the other hand, cooking does kill most harmful bacteria. Cooking is especially important when a pathogen is hard to wash off of a particular kind of food, or if a bacterium can grow at refrigerator temperatures, as is true of Listeria monocytogenes and Yersinia enterocolitica.

As you read about the differences among the pathogens, remember that there’s a common theme: following all the safety steps above can help protect you. The exceptions are toxins, such as the poisons in some mushrooms and a few kinds of fish and shellfish. Cooking, freezing, and washing won’t necessarily destroy toxins. Avoiding them is your best protection.

USDA’s site with discussion and storage dates. While there is some information here that is good, I will say that I am very unsure where some of the dates for storage of meat products came from. Many are rather unreasonable. Poultry is generally good for three to four days, depending on how it is handled. Ground products generally carry the greatest risk, but most ground beef is good longer than 1 to 2 days, but not by much. I can’t comment on ground poultry as I avoid it and grind my own for safety and health reasons. The smoked and cured products are often good for weeks.

Conclusion:

I hope I haven’t been too hard on you, or been too much of a Cranky Old Poo, but if you’re buying, storing, cooking and feeding people food, you need to know what you’re doing!

How about you? What horror stories have you heard regarding any of the above, food dates, food safety, etc.? Any thoughts from my friends in other countries? Do you have boards and agencies that regulate with food dates and safety issues?

13 thoughts on “Food Safety & Expiration Dates”

  1. This is a great post and super relevant for everyone! I know all of this but am guilty sometimes and it is always brilliant to get a reminder. I seem to very easily catch food poisoning and cooking at home a few precautions goes a long way. A great post!

  2. I’m working in a farm/produce stand for the summer. Recently a customer told me she had bought fresh blueberries (in a town 6 hours drive from here) and when she arrived home they tasted off. I asked how she had transported them home (cooler? ice packs?) and she said no, just in her trunk. Sad part was, even after I asked she still didn’t seem to think that was a problem.

    1. Poor baby blueberries! I wonder that they weren’t cooked in the heat. Berries are so delicate (not to mention expensive) that they deserve to be treated better. Any one who’s ever picked blueberries would know better!

      By the way, you have the greatest pinterest boards! I love them all, starting with A is for Apple!

    1. Thanks! I learned something as I put this together, too. I often (wrongly) wash my lettuce, spinach and a few other vegetables by filling a pan or the bowl of my spinner with water and gently agitating them, then draining and spinning. I’ve also been guilty of pulling things out of a bag and not washing them now and then. I think I need to a lot more careful to rinse them under RUNNING water…especially with the high amount of recalls and illness associated with these items.

        1. I went back and added a little info and a few more links – the CDC estimates 1 in 6 Americans have a case of food poisoning every year. I’m guessing there are a lot of cases not reported.

          My Mom was a teacher in the early days of her marriage and taught home-ec. Much of this stuff was drummed into me at a very early age. But we keep seeing ever worsening “emerging” issues, so it’s important to keep up. No one used to think anything of doing some of the stuff we know about now.

          Thanks for all your comments, and here’s a better future with well washed lettuce and with no food poisoning!

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