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Food Fight

By Joe Gschwendtner; courtesy photo

Photo of canned goods howing expiration dates

Some examples of ‘use by’ dates on different items. These do not indicate if the food is safe or not, but instead they are just the manufacturer’s estimate for the best quality.

Domestic tranquility is alive and well in my home, at least until my wife, Barb, and I get into pantry war games. Then we become, well, low-level combatants. She wants freshness and safety; I’m the Grinch. I don’t like throwing anything away.

The trigger came last month when my daughter and her partner moved into a brand new home. Alan said now is the ideal time to dump all the food in the old cupboard beyond the expiration date. This comment, for me, was like mace in the eyes. I could also view Barb out of the corner of my eye, undoubtedly thinking, “See, Alan gets it too.” Being a subtle gloater, I would like to share why last night’s discussion put a mark in the victory column for Gramps.

Were you to visit the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) website, you would discover that, excepting infant formula, the “use by” date is the manufacturer’s estimate through which its product will be of best quality. This is called “open dating.”

Understand this clearly. The folks who know, because they put the product in the package you are viewing, are telling you how long the contents will look good, taste best and meet their own standards of excellence. Dates are not an indicator of product safety.

Most people won’t buy this explanation, doubters all. Never mind the facts, they will ask again, “Are foods safe to eat after the date passes?” The correct answer is this: “If the date passes during home storage, it should still be safe and wholesome until the time at which spoilage is evident,” according to the USDA.

To help you clear your conscience if you open a can, say, of Campbell’s soup two years after the “best by” or “use by” date, it is likely you’ll notice no difference with a similar can bought yesterday. Unless, of course, there was leakage in the can and when opened, no hermetic seal remained.

I cannot swear by this, but I would imagine that there are still some fallout shelters from the ‘50s stocked with canned items like pears and corn, the contents quite edible if not beautiful any more. Truth be told, I had some soup several months ago that had a use by date of 2008, and I am still upright.

Let me close by giving you something useful to put on the refrigerator or pantry door. Show these code explanations to all those who would customarily throw older food away.

  • Best by date is the date guaranteeing best flavor and quality.
  • Sell by date is determined by the producer to guide sellers when to remove the stock on hand. The goal is to ensure customers get food of optimal quality.
  • Use or freeze by date is the last day for which producer will guarantee the product at “best quality.”

According to The Washington Post Consumer Reports, regardless of dates, should you ever have any doubts, “spoiled food will usually look different in texture and color, smell unpleasant and taste bad before it becomes unsafe to eat.”



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