It's late at night. You're hungry. You pull some eggs from the fridge to make a snack, but notice the "sell-by" date has passed. Should you cook and eat them anyway?
Unless that sell-by date is more than a month passed, the surprising answer is yes.
The reason: Food "sell-by" and "expiration dates" don't mean what many people think they do. In fact, they aren't an indication that food is likely spoiled or bad after those dates, health experts note. Most foods are still edible days or even weeks after the sell-by date, which is only a guideline "advisory" for when retailers should take products off store shelves.
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The U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn't require food dating for safety, except for a few items such as baby food and infant formula. The Food and Drug Administration also notes that food dating relates to the quality of products, not safety. Food-labeling laws vary by state and are primarily advisory, with most requiring dairy products and other perishables be sold before the expiration date.
"Many consumers confuse 'sell-by' with 'use-by' [dates]," notes Ethel Tiersky, a food-safety specialist who runs the nonprofit ShelfLifeAdvice.com
Website, which provides information on hundreds of foods, based reliable expert sources. "The former is intended to tell store managers that it's time to take the product off the shelf, but they're not legally obliged to. It does NOT mean the product is spoiled or contaminated."
Tiersky tells Newsmax Health there are three types of food-labeling dates consumers need to know and understand:
- Sell-by: You shouldn't buy a product from a store after this day (also known as the "expiration date"). But a food product in your fridge or pantry that is so dated is, in all likelihood, still edible days or even weeks afterward (depending on what it is).
- Use by: This is the last day that a food manufacturer will guarantee a product's quality, but it does not mean the food is unsafe or should be discarded after this date.
- Best if used by: The flavor or quality of a food product may not be as good after this day. But it may still be OK to eat.
"The 'best-if-used-by' date gives you the time when the quality, not the safety, of the product begins to deteriorate," Tiersky explains. "For example, the taste and/or texture may not be at its best. This date is not saying that the product is no longer safe. Unfortunately, many consumers don't know that."
She adds that all food products will spoil eventually, of course, but in most cases labels aren't a good indication of when.
"It depends how long after its sell-by date you're talking about," she says. "Canned goods generally have a use-by date, not a sell-by date. Chances are, the food isn't spoiled after the use-by date either unless the can looks bloated, dented, or rusty.
"Milk usually has a sell-by rather than a use-by date, and I reach further back on the shelf to get the container that has the most recent date and is, therefore, the freshest."
Tiersky says she doesn't believe food manufacturers use the dates to deliberately deceive consumers and sell more food products.
"I don't view them as a scam," she notes.
But food-labeling dates are misleading at best. A recent survey by ShelfLifeAdvice.com and Harris Interactive found that 76 percent of U.S. consumers mistakenly believe certain foods are unsafe to eat after the date printed on the packaging has passed.
That's one reason American consumers toss away nearly 29 million tons of food needlessly — wasting more than $700 million — each year, Tiersky says.
To help consumers determine whether a food product is still good to eat after its sell-by, use-by, or best-if-used-by date, ShelfLifeAdvice.com has compiled the following list from a variety of university studies, government experts, and other reliable food-safety sources.
Milk, properly refrigerated, is still good about a week after its "sell-by" date. (As with many food products, a "sniff test" is usually sufficient to determine when milk is past its prime.)
Cottage cheese, especially commercial Pasteurized varieties, lasts for 10-14 days after the date on the packaging. Beyond then, look for signs of mold.
Yogurt can be safely eaten up to 10 days after its "sell-by" date; beyond then the live bacterial cultures (which are healthful ingredients, and act as preservatives) will start to die.
Mayonnaise is still good for a month after its expiration date (unopened) and up to four months after opening.
Eggs, properly refrigerated, should last at least three to five weeks after the "sell-by" date.
Canned goods are good to eat long after labeling dates, as long as the can is in good shape. If a can is dented, rusted, or swollen, toss it out.
For many other products — including cheese, condiments, butter/margarine, fruit juices — can all be safely consumed long after the labeling dates suggest.
In general, experts recommend consumers apply some common-sense judgments, when deciding whether to keep or toss a food product after its "sell-by" date:
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- Check for spoilage. Mold or a slimy, discolored appearance can indicate the presence of bacteria.
- Is it appetizing? If the product smells bad or looks unappealing, don't eat it.
- Evaluating frozen foods. Pathogens don’t grow on frozen food, so freezing something can preserve its freshness for many months.
- Assessing pantry foods. Shelf-stable dry goods that contain no moisture or fat last long past the "use-by," so trust your senses of smell and taste to guide your decisions about such products.
- Combating food-borne illnesses. Most cases of food poisoning are not caused by "old food" that is past its "use-by" date. Food-borne illnesses are usually due to improper hand-washing, keeping food at the wrong temperature, insufficient washing of foods, cross-contamination (bringing a food that is served raw in contact with contaminated meats and other items.
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