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Posted by Mary Liz Wright -

WHEN IN DOUBT, THROW IT OUT! Those of us in the food safety education business use this as a mantra. But should we? In the United States people throw away 40% of the food that they buy. We are a wasteful society. Are we throwing food away unnecessarily? Perhaps. If you are using the dates stamped on food products as your guide, then you might need to revisit your strategy. In fact, the numbers and dates that are stamped on food products are put there voluntarily by the manufacturer, with the exception of infant formula, some forms of baby food and medicines. So, just what do those numbers mean?

1) Dates on Food Packages (FSIS)

  • A "Sell-By" or"Pull Date" indicates when stores must remove products. The food will be safe to eat after this date if it has been refrigerated continually. Milk will usually be edible at least one week longer. Other foods like yogurt or eggs will keep more than one week beyond the date listed. Foods that use "pull date": milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, cream, eggs, lunchmeats, packaged salad mixes.
  • "Pack Dates" (usually on canned fruits and vegetables, canned meat and fish, boxes of crackers and cookies, spices) are the date the product was packaged; used by manufacturers and retailers to track inventory, rotate items and locate items in case of recall. Sometimes it is written in code, (Packed on 3/23/11", "192 VIG 2109" ) Can codes are quite confusing. The manufacturers have their own dating systems, and you may have to contact the manufacturer to determine what the date means. That said, a code of 3052 probably means your tomatoes were canned in March (the third month of the year), on the fifth day in 2002. Most acidic canned foods have a shelf life in your home cupboard of 18 months. Canned foods will be safe (but may have changes in the taste and texture) for many years after this date. If the containers have bulges or dents then the product should be thrown away. Packages of foods will be safe for long periods of time after the pack date, but may not be a flavorful. Any product with a broken seal or smells bad should not be eaten.
  • An "Expiration Date" is printed on infant formula, baby food, vitamins, over-the counter drugs, yeast, baking powder, cake mixes, pectin
  • A "Best if Used By (or before)" date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • A "Use-By" date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.

Examples: "Expires 2/24/11", "Do not use after 2/24/11"

Although these products may be safe if consumed after this date, their usefulness and quality may be reduced. Infant formula, baby food, and over-the-counter drugs should never be consumed after the expiration date because they may not function in the body as they are supposed to. Rising agents like yeast will be safe after this date, but may not be as effective.

  • A "Quality Assurance Date" :"Better if used by date shown", is used for foods that have a long shelf life, but will begin to lose their flavor or develop off-flavors. The date listed is an estimate of how long the food will be of optimal quality. Quality is defined as smell, taste, and texture, not as safety. Therefore, after the date listed, the food may not taste as good, but it will still be safe. If the product smells or tastes bad, or if the seal on the package has been broken, it is best if you don't use it. Foods that use this date include: packaged mixes like macaroni and cheese, boxed soups, bakery products, cheese, some canned foods, cold cereals, peanut butter, mayonnaise.

2) Other symbols on food packages

  1. The letter "U" on a food means that the food is kosher. It was processed according to Jewish dietary laws. Foods that are certified kosher can carry a U in a circle or a K in a circle, star or triangle. A "D" refers to dairy, so the "D" indicates the kosher product also contains milk.
  2. Eggs typically carry a Julian date that indicates the day the eggs were packed. The number 001 refers to the first day of the year, Jan. 1. Since January has 31 days, an egg carton with a 32 on it would have been packed Feb. 1. By the way, typically eggs have a shelf life of three to five weeks, after the stamped date, in your refrigerator as long as your refrigerator maintains a temperature of 40 degrees or lower.

3) Inspection required --grading is voluntary (meat, eggs)

Grade A fluid milk is approved for drinking, Grade B can be used for cheese, yogurt, etc.

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