Expiration Dates

This post is a request from my nephew. Hi Muneer! He asked, “What do the expiration dates on packages really mean, and do they have to be followed?” I’ve heard so many people of all ages ask the same question. Let me break it down.

The act of putting a date on food is called product dating. This labeling isn’t required by federal regulations except for infant formula, which I’ll get into further down. If dates are applied, they must a) be truthful and not misleading b) show the month and day and c) show the year if it is a frozen or shelf-stable item. These rules fall under the jurisdiction of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), an agency of the USDA.

When manufacturers are providing dates, they are voluntarily helping consumers decide when a product is of the best quality. They are not an indicator of safety. The actual date applied to the package takes into account a lot of factors like characteristics of the food itself, packaging material, shipping and storage temperature, and even price-point.

As you can imagine, companies approach this in different ways, and the lack of uniformity is why you see multiple phrases like “Enjoy By” and “Sell By.”  Some companies are targeting retailers with this, while others are targeting customers.

To understand what’s at play, we can make the distinction between spoilage and pathogenic organisms. Spoilage organisms cause products to develop undesirable sensory characteristics like smelling rotten, feeling slimy, or tasting sour. Pathogens, like E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella, and Vibrio are the ones that make you sick. It may not seem like it, but spoilage won’t put you in the hospital. It’s just off-putting.

A good rule of thumb is that spoilage occurs before pathogens multiply. Since expiration dates are typically written for quality (pre-spoilage), they are well before your food will become unsafe to consume. Is this confusing? Absolutely. It means there’s no hard and fast rule. Definitely do look at the expiration dates on packaging, but remember they are only one piece of information. Sight, smell, and common sense go a long way.

The lack of uniform labels leads to a lot of food waste. Personally, I hate wasting food so I’m not a stickler for expiration dates. I use sight and smell A LOT to determine whether I’ll eat or drink something. But like most things, it’s up to you to decide how comfortable you are going past a label date.

There are two exception to what I wrote above. The first is infant formula. Formula is required to have a “Use-By” date that ensures nutrients haven’t broken down and the amount written on the label is what is actually in the formula. It also has to maintain a consistency that will pass through a typical bottle nipple.

The second is an initiative by two of the largest industry trade groups, the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) to streamline expiration dates. Theoretically, this should whittle down expiration dates to just two phrases, “Best if Used By” and “Use By.” The first is a spoilage date and the second is safety date. This is a very recent initiative with adoption in July, just two months ago. The effects have yet to be seen.

Keep in mind, this initiative doesn’t touch how companies determine a “Use By” date. Whether it is a true safety date and not a spoilage date will likely still vary. Don’t be afraid to use sight, smell, and common sense in addition to expiration dates.

If you have questions about specific items, post a comment! If you’re curious about FMI and GMA, don’t worry. I have posts on them yet to come.

Image by: Charisse Kenion 

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