Year ending. Year beginning. So let’s talk about calendar dates – not weight loss goals or New Year’s resolutions, but dates on packages, cans, cartons of food and what they may or may not mean for you.
The information that I am providing today (the upshot) is freely available in more detail from the USDAs Food Safety and Inspection Service. I am not covering infant formula which has separate rules, and I notice that tuna and other canned fish are not specifically mentioned in the fact sheet. If you want more info on those products you might have to use the AskKaren.gov feature.
Here are the take home points on those package dates, some may surprise you:
There is no federal – or country wide – law regarding dates on food packages. Meaning, they ae not required at all, by the federal government.
Around 20 states have laws regarding dates on food items, but the laws vary.
An open date – just the date, no words to describe it – and a sell by date – are not meant for use by us. These are more a message from the manufacturer to the store owner letting them know that the foods will be of the highest quality if sold by – displayed until – whatever that date is.
If a package has a date and with that date are the words USE BY, you should – use it by that date. The food will be of better quality if you use it by then, and if you are not going to use it by that date, you can freeze it. Foods can stay in the freezer indefinitely, but be mindful of how you package them so they don’t get freezer burn.
Eggs are interesting. A few states require sell by or expiration dates and some others forbid them! If an egg carton has USDA stamped on it, you will find a package date. The date the eggs were put in that carton. And it’s a little unusual. It only contains 3 numbers. This 3 digit date indicates the number of days since the start of the year that the eggs have been packaged. So if you buy a carton of eggs and it says 145, the eggs were put in the carton on the 145th day of the year – year starting January 1st. If there is a sell by date on this same USDA carton of eggs, it cannot be after that package code date.
Also interesting, eggs can be stored in the fridge and used for 3 to 5 weeks while maintaining great quality – even after a use by date. Of note, the eggs should remain in the carton and at the coldest part of the fridge (so much for all the refrigerator egg gadgets!)
If there is not a use by date, the USDA provides advice on when to use the food by, and offers a chart here. The thing that stood out to me when I looked at the chart is that opening the product is the kiss of death, and that almost everything should be used within 2 days of breaking the seal (except milk and produce). It’s like time is suspended until the seal is broke and then it rapidly accelerates.
Other important food safety and shelf life considerations: If you leave a product out of refrigeration, like hot dogs you are waiting to grill, the use by date is void, they are not safe anymore. Thawing something out at room temperature for over two hours is also frowned upon. Notice this is not about quality anymore, it’s about safety via contamination. Other safety issues mentioned in the handout involved not washing ones hands before preparing foods.
BTW, there was no specific mention of yogurt, milk or cheeses, but USDA/FSIS indicated that the foods should be fine if kept refrigerated– and until you notice an off odor, color or perhaps mold J