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Warning! This Article is About to Expire

March 15, 2010

Here’s the situation:  You’ve had a craving for something fresh to eat all day.  After work, you stop at your local grocery store and start looking for anything tasty.  Fruit, yogurt, and a big bag of salad are scanned, paid for, and sacked; you’re on your way.  At home you prepare the fruit, wash the bag of salad, only then does the problem start – you open the yogurt and it’s rancid.  Disappointment sets in.

Everyone comes across spoiled food from time to time, even if you do your due diligence, inspecting it and looking at the date stamped on it.  We simply put it into the “stuff” happens category and move on.  Regardless of effort, from time to time something goes wrong in the delivery chain and an item is spoiled.  For the most part, time is the enemy of freshness.  That is why providers do things like date products, to aid in knowing how long we have to enjoy our tasty treat.  That brings up another problem, just what does a date mean when it’s on a product in the grocery store?

The answer is it depends on the words that accompany the date.  In this case, words really do matter.  The most common date is the ubiquitous “Sell By” date.  Did you know that the government does not require any food to carry a sell-by date?  It is merely a guideline indicating freshness and there is no regulation regarding it.  Stores have no obligation to remove items that are beyond their sell-by date from shelves.  For them, it is simply a public relations issue.

What about the other dates we see, “Use By,” and “Best Before” for instance?  Use-by does have regulation around it but only where baby food is concerned.  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates baby formula and requires the date to ensure it meets nutritional levels that are appropriate.  For poultry, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates it and they only require the display of the date packaged.  They allow other dates, as sell-by or best-before, but in addition to the packaging date.  For most other products, dates are simply window dressing.

Now before anyone out there gets the idea I am suggesting we hire a bunch of food Nazis to oversee the national food supply, I am not.  It is in the best interest of companies to supply food that is safe, fresh, and tasty.  The point is to give the consumer understanding of the date used on labels.  Perhaps it would help if they used some standards but they don’t. At best a general guide can be provided, but it in no way is definitive:

Date Description Meaning
Sell By If sold by this date, the product, like milk, will remain fresh for the expected time to consume it at home, 5 days, or so.
Use By Depends on product, on baby formula it means use by this date to receive the minimum nutritional value allowed.  On other products it is more a guideline.
Packaged Used on meat products to indicate the date it was literally packaged in the container you see.  It does not tell you how fresh the product is before packaging.
Best Before Basically a statement used by the maker to say if you use it by this date, it will taste fresh.
You may find many other labels for dates.  Other than the few required by regulation, they are only indications of relative freshness.  That is the fact to keep in mind.

Besides taste, there are other important reasons to seek out fresher food.  Of great importance are bacteria.  The longer food sits around, the more bacteria grows; it is unavoidable.  Proper handling reduces the growth but cannot eliminate it.  Obviously this is a greater threat with produce, dairy and meats than with packaged foods.  While grocery stores do a good job of maintaining proper temperatures for particular foods, our home refrigerators do not.

It is not a design problem with refrigerators but simply our use as a general storage that creates the issue.  Meats need colder temperatures to retard bacteria, temperatures that damage fresh vegetables.  At home, we strike a balance of sorts but it is not open-ended.  Regardless of any date placed upon meats, if not stored at the proper temperatures, they will spoil.  The best practice is to freeze them unless they are to be used within the next day or two, at the most.  Pallavi Gogoi wrote a wonderful article for Business Week (click here to read) that covers the matter in greater detail.

Another reason to seek out fresher food, all food looses its nutritional value over time.  The longer it sits the less benefit your body receives from it.  Research conducted by Penn State (click here to read report) showed spinach looses over 50% of its folate (vitamin B) and carotenoid (vitamin A and anti-oxidants) levels in just eight days.  That is not eight days from when it reaches the store but eight days after its harvested.  Think of it this way, if its picked today and packaged, shipped to a supplier tomorrow, then moved to a distribution center the next day, then on to a store the next, stored for a day, put on the shelve the next day, bought by you the day after that, then used the following day that’s eight days. Perhaps it is best for fruits and vegetables to use a “Picked On” date but fat-chance for that to happen.  If ever you needed justification to buy locally grown vegetables, here it is!

In the end, product dates are really just guidelines to help us understand freshness.  The point is to check dates and always buy the freshest products possible.  Understand that most dates are not drop-dead dates for food but speak only to its freshness.  After all, freshness is the key – it limits bacterial growth while increasing nutritional value.  Always look for the date, figure out what it’s really telling you, then buy the freshest foods you can.

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