Understanding “sell-by” and “use-by” dates on food!

June 10, 2011 | By | Comments (4)

There’s a running argument in my household about when to throw away food items. I tend to err on the side of caution, although my husband would say I err on the side of throwing away perfectly good food!

Many times the disagreements center on situations where I am just not sure how long after something has been opened it is still okay to eat. Sure, the date marked on the package may say, for example, “use by July 16″, but if you opened that jar or bottle eight days ago, isn’t it that eight-day time-lapse something I should be considering, not the fact that it COULD have sat on the shelf until mid-July? My husband will keep a half-empty carton of OJ in the ‘fridge for a month. Me? I get spooked after a week or two, simply because it’s been around so long and has been opened and closed (and sipped directly from!!) so many times.

I recently insisted that we each take a Sharpie and mark on packages of deli meat the exact date they are opened, so that I don’t have to simply reply on my memory, which is invariably shaky…and into the garbage the slices go!

Well, it turns out that I’m probably being way too conservative after all. According to Scott Hurd, director of the Food Risk Modeling and Policy Lab at Iowa State University, who was interviewed in this eye-opening article, most use-by dates are rather flexible and depend largely on how the food was stored—i.e. whether it got left in the trunk of your car for too long, cooled insufficiently at the store, etc. (‘Fridges should be set at 40 degrees or cooler.) And while you can’t very well go around taking the temp of the refrigerators at every supermarket, it’s important to note the distinction between sell-by and use-by.

“Sell-by” indicates the earliest date that the item could go bad.

“Use-by” is more dire; after this date, it’s commonly expected to take a turn for the worse.

And the term “best-before?” Rather meaningless from a health perspective; it points mostly to when the food will be at its peak tastiness.

Hurd also notes that one of the best indicators of spoilage is odor. Once something starts to turn, there’s no masking the uniquely funky odor.

So, perhaps the “when in doubt, throw it out” mantra many people subscribe to, should more aptly be: “when in doubt, use your snout!” For more tips on how to store food in the refrigerator, check out this guide.