Recently there was an article on Yahoo discussing the meaning of dates on food packages. After reading it and having spent some time learning about this stuff at our health safety and certification classes, I thought it needed some more elaborating.
First of all, “Use By” Dates. These are the dates a manufacturer suggests that a product be used by. They don’t mean that a product is necessarily spoiled on that date and should be discarded.
“Sell By” dates mean just that. A grocery store is supposed to remove these products for sale by the stated date but again, this doesn’t mean the product is no longer useable. In fact, the product may be just fine for quite a long while after the “Sell By” date.
An “Expiration Date” is technically the last date a product should be used, particularly if it is being given to those with compromised immune systems such as babies or the elderly. Again, this does not mean that the food is necessarily spoiled.
The main rule of thumb with any of these is proper handling and storage of the foods. All potentially hazardous foods, i.e. dairy products, meat and eggs, should be stored at a temperature of 40 degrees or less. And frozen foods should remain that way until they are thawed for use. If you suspect a food has been mishandled, i.e. there are ice crystals that have formed in frozen packages which indicate thawing and refreezing, you should immediately discard the product.
Ultimately though, your two best allies in determining the freshness of your food are your eyes and your nose. Your eyes can see potential discoloration, mold, dents in cans, etc. Your nose can certainly smell when milk or dairy products are off. Smell your milk before you pour it on your cereal. Even if the “Sell By” date hasn’t passed, it may go bad. And if the “Sell By” date has passed, the milk may still be just fine for another 7-10 days.
Cans theoretically don’t have an expiration date if they are properly sealed, however, sometimes cans can get compromised, thus enabling bacteria to form. Be particularly aware of cans that have been dropped or dented and of course if you notice the can buldging in any way. This is an indication that the can is no longer safe for consumption and should be thrown away.
Eggs are of course a big one with the latest salmonella scare. I get my eggs straight from the farm. Farm fresh eggs absolutely do not hard boil straight out of the chicken. They require a little aging to get a good hard boil. I often keep one set of eggs for 2 weeks for hard boiling and then use the fresher ones for my baking or breakfasts. Eggs, particularly fresh ones, can keep for 3 weeks no problem. Just make sure you are cooking them up to temperature, meaning to 160 degrees. If you enjoy your eggs poached or in hollandaise sauce, as I do, use the absolute freshest ones to guarantee safety.
With cheese, you may notice mold form on hard cheeses but this can easily be cut off and the cheese will still be edible. With fresh cheeses, like goat, feta, cream, mascarpone, queso fresco, etc. you have to be a little more cautious. These cheeses will begin to smell off and at that point you’ll want to throw them away.
With things like jams and jellies or peanut butter, again, you may notice mold form in the jar. Technically you can remove the mold and the rest of the container is still edible but I prefer to toss the jar. Honey, which should be kept at room temperature for optimal texture may harden with time, but it doesn’t go rancid. You can place the jar in the microwave for a few seconds to loosen up. Lemon juice and vinegar are the same thing. They are acids, which are a natural preservatives and do not go rancid.
Spices of course are generally good for 6 months to a year before they have to be replaced, not because they go rancid, but because they lose their flavor. They should be kept in airtight containers away from heat or sunlight. Olive oil and other oils are generally good for a year if kept in an opaque container, away from heat or sunlight. Coffee should be kept at room temperature in an airtight container and ground fresh for maximum flavor, but not necessarily because of spoilage. Nuts can be frozen for longevity, but generally I keep them in an airtight container in a cool dry place away from sunlight for up to 6 months before they will go rancid. Notice a trend, oxygen and sunlight are two big culprits of degeneration in cellular structure of many commonly used ingredients.
Again, ultimately you are your own best advocate for food safety. Use your senses and if something looks, smells and especially tastes off, throw it out. No reason to take chances. But don’t jump the gun either. You’ll waste money on replacing food that is perfectly safe to eat.