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Is This Stuff Still Good?

Author: DeCA Home Economist Kay Blakley, kay.blakley@deca.mil
Submitted: Leslie

Understanding how food product dating works might not be a subject you’ve lost any sleep over. But, if you’re a typical consumer, I’ll bet it has been a source of confusion from time to time.  And, I’ll bet that confusion has resulted in some perfectly good food being thrown in the garbage or poured down the drain.  For the straight scoop on product dating and a deeper understanding of exactly what those dates mean please read on.

This subject gets a little complicated, so we’ll try to keep things as straightforward as possible.  It’s also a subject that arouses a very strong emotional response for some folks, so I want you to know, up front, that this is not the gospel according to Kay Blakley.  Everything I’m going to tell you is based on information from the legal authorities on this subject, namely the United States Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. They each have very useful web sites. Visit www.usda.gov or www.fda.gov if you’d like to learn more.

 

Does Federal Law Require Product Dating?

Many consumers incorrectly assume that a date stamped on a product’s package is an expiration date. They automatically throw it out once that date arrives, thinking the food is unsafe to use.  This is not true. Except for infant formula and some baby food, which we’ll address later, product dating is not required by federal regulations.  Even so, you will typically find what’s called an “open date” (use of a calendar date as opposed to a code) on perishable foods such as meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products.  This dating is done voluntarily by the manufacturer.  It is intended to help the store determine how long to display the product for sale, and also to help the consumer know the time limit to purchase or use the product at its best quality.  It is not a safety date.

Even though federal regulations do not require dating of most products, the regulations do require that if a date is used, it must express both the month and day of the month (and year, in the case of shelf-stable and frozen products). Additionally, if a calendar date is shown, regulations require that a phrase explaining the meaning of the date be printed immediately adjacent to the date.  These phrases are “Sell-By”, “Use-By” and “Best if Used By (or Before).”  Some manufacturers are better at following that requirement than others.  Sometimes finding the explanation phrase takes a bit of close inspection, but just keep looking.  You’ll find it.

Types of Dates and What They Mean

         A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before this date.

         A “Best if Used By (or Before)” date is a recommendation for best flavor or quality.  It is not a purchase or safety date.

         A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for use of the product while at peak quality.  This date is determined by the manufacturer based on analysis of the product throughout its shelf life; tests; or other information.  

Most Asked About Items

The items that seem to cause most concern among commissary shoppers are exactly those perishable items listed above – dairy products, eggs, meat and poultry.  So, let’s take a look at each product or category of products separately.

         Milk:  Fresh milk is produced, according to American specifications, right here in Europe by inspected and approved dairies.  A “Best Sell-By” date is stamped on every carton.  Make sure you purchase the milk before this date.  Take it straight home and refrigerate immediately at 40 degrees F or less.  Don’t let it set in the trunk of your car while you squeeze in a few more errands on the way home, and don’t let it set out on the counter or table during a meal.  Pour the servings you need and return the carton to the refrigerator promptly.

Under optimum conditions, milk should remain fresh up to five days or longer beyond the sell-by date.  When in doubt, trust your own sense of taste and smell.  Fresh milk will almost always let you know when it has passed its prime. Refer to the side panel of the milk carton for more information regarding the impact of temperature on the shelf life of milk.

         Yogurt: The vast majority of yogurts sold in European commissaries are purchased here in Europe.  They may be stamped with either a “Best Sell-By” or a “Best Use-By” date and the phrase may not always be written in English.  The phrases “Haltbar bis” or “Haltbarkeit” and  “Mindest Haltbar bis” or “Mindesthaltbarkeit” roughly translated, convey this same message.

Store yogurts in the same manner you would fresh milk.  Keep them refrigerated at 40 degrees F or less, and use by the “Best Use-By date for highest quality.  After that date you might see some separation of fluid in the product, which will affect its appearance, but this factor alone is not an indicator of spoilage. It may be just fine after you stir it up.  Again, trust your own sense of taste and smell, plus your personal knowledge of how well it has been cared for since coming to live at your house.

Under optimum refrigerator storage conditions yogurts marked with a “Sell-By” date can be expected to be of good quality and freshness 7 to 10 days beyond that date.

         Eggs: Fresh eggs are also purchased right here in Europe.  The cartons are stamped with a “Best Sell-By” date.  At home, keep the eggs refrigerated, in their original carton.  Egg shells are porous and can absorb odors from other foods stored in the refrigerator, and the egg carton is designed to prevent this from happening. 

Eggs have a very long shelf life.  Properly refrigerated eggs can be expected to maintain reasonable quality for 3 to 5 weeks beyond the “Best Sell-By” date. 

One additional caution should be mentioned when dealing with European eggs.  European egg producers rely on the eggs’ natural coating to protect against spoilage, which explains why the eggs sometimes still have a bit of surface dirt and debris attached when you purchase them in the commissary. They are not washed before being sent to market. You should clean the eggs with a damp paper towel, if needed, just before using them. Don’t do it ahead of time, because washing destroys the eggs natural barrier against bacteria being able to penetrate the porous shell.

         Meat and Poultry: Vacuum packed meats sold in European commissaries carry both a “Sell-By“and a “Use-By” date. Purchase these meats before the “Sell-By” date, keep them refrigerated properly and either use or freeze by the “Use-By” date.  Once a perishable product like meat is frozen, these dates become irrelevant because, according to USDA experts, foods kept frozen continuously (at 0 degrees F or lower) can be safe indefinitely. 

Fresh poultry, including turkey, plus fresh rabbit and duck are stamped with a “Use-By” date.  Recommendations for handling and storage of vacuum packed meats also apply to these products.

If frozen at peak quality (by the “Use-By” date) foods emerge tasting better than foods frozen near the end of their useful shelf life.  So freeze items you won’t use quickly, sooner rather than later.  Unopened vacuum packaged meats can be frozen as is.  So can the tray packed, cellophane wrapped poultry products.  However, the cellophane wrap is not as sturdy as the vacuum package, so if the storage time is expected to be more than a month or two, over-wrap these packages with airtight heavy-duty aluminum foil, plastic wrap or freezer paper.

Frozen Products Stamped with a Fresh “Sell-By” Date

I said earlier this subject gets a bit complicated – do you agree with me yet?  If not, you will after this section.

There are certain frozen products such as hot dogs, bacon, sausage and ham, carried in European commissaries, which may show a sell-by date that has long past.  That is because these products are sold stateside normally only in a fresh chilled state, so they are stamped with a “Sell-By or “Use-By” date on that basis – that they will be sold fresh.

Remember, we said earlier that once a product is frozen, the “Use-By/Sell-By” date looses its relevance. That definitely applies to this situation. We also said earlier, that freezing products at their peak of freshness helps to ensure best quality once they are defrosted for use.  Well, the manufacturer freezes these items at the time of production, so they couldn’t be much fresher. They are shipped to us frozen, and sold to you frozen.

We do this primarily to service our more remote locations where the transportation time required prohibits the use of fresh chilled product.  But, we offer them for sale in our other commissaries as well, to give customers a wider selection of brands within those product lines.  In the larger stores you will find the top selling brand of these products offered in the fresh chilled state, and the number two selling brand offered in the frozen state.

These products, just like all other products in our stores, are carefully inspected by trained military medical food inspectors to ensure they meet strict health and safety guidelines.  Neither your commissary nor the makers of these products want to offer you anything less than the highest quality.

Infant Formula and Baby Food

Now, as promised earlier, a word about infant formula and baby foods.  Federal regulations require a “Use-By” date on the product label of infant formula and the varieties of baby food under FDA inspection.  If consumed by that date, the formula or food must contain not less than the quantity of each nutrient as described on the product label.  Formula must maintain an acceptable quality to pass through an ordinary bottle nipple.  If stored too long, formula can separate and clog the nipple.

Dating of baby food is for quality as well as for nutrient retention.  Just as you might not want to eat stale potato chips, you wouldn’t want to feed your baby foods that have an off flavor or texture.  Do not buy or use baby formula or baby food after its “Use-By date.”

Practice Safe Food Handling at Home

Your commissary maintains rigid quality assurance and sanitation standards to make sure you receive fresh, wholesome and safe food products.  After selecting food items, though, it’s up to you to take care of them properly.  If foods are mishandled, foodborne bacteria can grow and cause illness – before or after the date on the package.  For example, if hot dogs are taken to a picnic and left out for several hours, they wouldn’t be safe to eat thereafter, even if they are still within the date on the package.

Follow these simple rules and your knowledge of food product dating to ensure both quality and safety:

         Purchase fresh dated products before the sell-by date.

         If perishable, take the food home immediately and refrigerate promptly.  Freeze it if you can’t use it by the “Use-By” date.

         Follow any handling recommendations on the product label.

         Remember that product dating is a guide for quality, not safety.  

         Trust your own sense of taste and smell, plus your knowledge of how well the product has been cared for at home, in deciding whether the product is safe and of useable quality. This does not apply to infant formula and baby food.  Those products should not be used after the “Use-By” date.

 



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Page added on: 28 September 2004