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Thank you, Ask Well Column from the New York Times. Article by: Sophie Egan
Have You ever asked yourself what gives with these expiration dates on food? . . . Can I safely consume this if the label says "sell by" and that date has come and gone? . . . Well this useful article from the Ask Well Column of the New York Times seeks to clear that up for us.
Although the USDA food safety chart recommends that chicken, for example, only be kept in the fridge for two days, the "sell by" dates for chicken sold in refrigerators in stores is much longer than that. Why is there this discrepancy, and which is correct?
How important is the "best if used by" date?
Back when I was a kid, only perishables such as milk, mayo, meat, fish, cheese, and butter carried "sell by" dates. But today, many other products -- dried herbs and spices, canned goods, frozen goods, cold and hot cereals -- carry a label stating that the product is "Best If Used By" a certain date. Is it in fact important for one's health to follow such guidelines? Or are these labels, at least in some cases, merely a ploy to get consumers to throw out perfectly usable goods and buy more of the manufacturer's products?
The vast majority of food date labels, including “sell by,” “use by” and “best if used by,” are food manufacturers’ suggestions for peak freshness and taste, rather than indicators of food safety or health concerns. Such labels can be difficult to navigate, though, because the definitions of the terms aren’t standardized, and labeling practices can vary by product type and manufacturer.
As a general rule, most foods can be consumed days, weeks or even months past the dates printed on packaging. “Our bodies are well equipped to detect when food is spoiled,” said Dana Gunders, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group. “The food will taste funny or smell bad, or look slimy.” In most cases, she said, the worst that might happen is that you’ll get a stomachache from food that has gone bad.
An important exception, Ms. Gunders said, is food that has grown moldy, since some types of mold can produce toxins. She recommends you freeze foods like sliced bread that you won’t finish within a few days and store cheese in wax paper, which will keep it fresh longer than plastic wrap will.
Most food-borne illness occurs when food has been contaminated by a pathogen on the farm or at a processing plant, rather than from the natural process of decay or aging. Foods whose labeling dates you should pay particular attention to are the same ones pregnant women are cautioned to avoid, since they may harbor listeria, which unlike most bacteria can grow under refrigeration. Such foods include deli meats, unpasteurized dairy products, ready-to-eat refrigerated foods, and hot dogs and sausages that aren’t fully cooked.
Pasteurized dairy products tend to be among the safest foods; use the sniff test for products like milk. Eggs can be eaten three to five weeks after the “use by” date, Ms. Gunders said. A quick trick is to drop an egg in a glass of water: It will float if it’s bad and sink if it’s good.
More food storage tips can be found in the food storage directory at savethefood.com, a public service campaign sponsored by the NRDC and the Ad Council.
To address consumer confusion and reduce waste, a proposed bill called the Food Date Labeling Act seeks to create a uniform national date labeling system with just two labels: one for quality, “best if used by,” and one for safety, “expires on.”
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