Thursday, February 25, 2010

When does food really expire?

The other day I got the milk out of the fridge and it didn’t look good. When I opened the bottle and it didn’t smell good either. Based on the expiration date, I shouldn’t have bad milk for at least another 4 days. I obliviously couldn’t prepare my kids cereal with that milk. Furthermore, I start to wonder what “food expiration dates” really mean? So I did some research.

I found out that there is no substitute to common sense and dates stamped on the packaging of the food you buy can be quite confusing. For example, "sell by" is more a guide for the store to know how long it can display a product for sale. The "best before" or "best if used by" date usually refers to a quality or flavor of the food. "Use by" works more like an expiration date, similar to that on medicines, and taking them after the date is not recommended. However, when it comes to raw meat, you should be extra careful. Food safety experts recommend that consumers should either eat or freeze any type of raw meat within two days of buying. If you decide to freeze your ground meat, remember that it needs to be consumed within three months of being frozen.

Now, let’s talk about my “milk situation”.  I learned that milk starts deteriorating in quality quite quickly. Pasteurized milk may remain fresh for five days after its sell-by date. Interestingly, milk can lose vitamins when exposed to light, which is why it usually comes in opaque plastic or paperboard.  Generally speaking, dairy and raw meat should be kept in the low 30 degrees Fahrenheit, while the home refrigerator's temperature is set around 40 degrees to keep other things in the fridge (like vegetables) from freezing. Therefore, you should place these products where your refrigerator is the coldest. 

When it comes to canned food, most high-acid can stay on shelves for twelve to eighteen months. Low acid foods, such as fish, meat, and some vegetables can be used for two to five years if stored properly. If the can is budging, that means it's infected by some unwanted bacteria and should not be eaten.

After the "use by" or “best” date has passed, you may start to notice gradual changes in the product’s texture, color, or flavor. But as long as item has been stored properly, you can generally consume it beyond this date. The way the food is handled by producers, retailers and consumers can affect the quality and freshness of food. Experts’ points out that most of these dates are not an indicator of safety, rather of quality. Some foods spoil if not refrigerated quickly enough. Ultimately, most of these labels should be used more as a guide, rather than a hard and fast expiration date.

Your best bet for gauging whether a product with this type of date is still of satisfactory quality is to simply smell and taste it first. Always use common sense and discard foods that have developed an unusual odor, flavor or appearance.


  1. Yep I had to throw out some chocolate the other day it was really bad. Broke my heart, I was just in the mood for chocolate. It was only purchased at Christmas but it was imported so obviously it was way older than that :(

    Great article, T.

  2. Poppy Place, I feel for you! It is sad when food goes bad before we can eat it.

  3. Great tips! Thank you for sharing. I am a "milk smeller". I smell the milk every time I open the carton to use it...even if I just bought it and opened it the day before. Thanks again! Love the blog!

  4. I've had that problem with milk too . . . really annoying when I want a morning cup of tea (with milk because I'm British) and it's gone funky. :0)

  5. Good article. My mother and I always have spats about when food expires. I get nervous if it goes pass the date and throw it out where as she likes to keep her food for a week or two after the date.

  6. This was awesome. Thanks for sharing.

  7. I'm very BIG on expiry dates! Food has to be thrown out right away once it goes bad. I just threw out some milk this morning as it expired yesterday. Not taking a chance!

    saladforbreakfast AT gmail DOT com

  8. Very interesting! Just followed your blog & twitter! Recently updated our blog:

  9. This is informative! I also have a cheat sheet printed from the USDA (I think it was?) Chart of Food Safety/Freshness and I mostly go by that unless something looks/smells funky otherwise! :-)
    Here via Twitter Moms! Nice to "meet ya'