Food Product Dates: Clearing Up the Confusion
As a registered dietitian nutritionist, I receive numerous questions related to dairy food safety from consumers. A frequently asked question is: “If the milk in my refrigerator has a “sell by” date of two days ago, is it still safe to drink or should I toss it?”
As many as two-thirds of Americans look at the date stamped on perishable foods and beverages before deciding to purchase or consume, according to the International Food Information Council Foundation’s 2014 Food & Health Survey. Yet questions arise regarding what various terms such as “sell by,” “use by,” and “best if used by (or before)” mean. If you’re confused about what food product dates on perishable foods mean, you’re not alone! In fact, inconsistent terminology and lack of understanding of the different terms used in date labeling can lead consumers to throw food away too soon, thereby contributing to food waste, according to a new report.
Getting to the Bottom of the Confusion: What You Need to Know about Dates on Perishable Foods
It’s important to understand that the date stamped on a perishable food item is about insuring best quality, but cannot be relied on as an indicator of food safety.
• “Sell by date” – is determined by the manufacturer for use by retailers to determine how long to display the product for sale or when they should take it off the shelves, and by consumers to know the time limit to purchase or use the product at its best quality. However, it does not mean that the food is no longer safe to eat. For maximum quality, you should buy the product before this date.
• “Use by date” – is intended for consumers to help them select a product at its best quality. It’s the last date recommended for the use of the product at its peak quality. This date is determined by the product’s manufacturer. Even if the date expires during home storage, the product should be safe, wholesome, and of good quality if handled and stored properly.
• “Best if used by (or before)” – is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date. For example, a product may be safe to eat beyond this date, but may not be of highest quality.
Tips to Help Keep your Dairy Products Safe
• Milk, plain or flavored, can stay fresh for 2 to 3 days and possibly up until one week after the “sell by” date if handled and stored properly. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends discarding milk after the container has been opened for one week, regardless of the “sell by” date.
• Buy milk and other dairy products near the end of your shopping trip and refrigerate as soon as possible, such as within 2 hours after purchase or sooner if the outside temperature is high. Some dairy foods (e.g., milk) can be frozen, whereas others (e.g., cottage cheese, cream cheese, sour cream) do not freeze well.
• Store milk and other dairy products in the interior of the refrigerator at 40º F or below, not on the refrigerator door where the temperature can be higher due to opening and closing of the door.
• Choose milk in cardboard containers or non-translucent jugs that do not allow exposure to light, which can contribute to spoilage.
• Safe storage times for cheese depend on the cheese’s moisture content and acidity. Tightly wrapped, refrigerated hard cheeses (e.g., cheddar, gouda, Edam, Swiss) can last up to 6 months unopened or for 3 to 4 weeks after opening, whereas soft cheeses have a shorter shelf life (i.e., 2 weeks for cream cheese and 1 week (opened) and 2 weeks (unopened) for cottage cheese).
• If mold appears on some hard cheeses (with the exception of some mold-ripened cheeses such as Blue and Roquefort), remove it by cutting a one-inch square around it; the rest is safe to eat. Discard cheeses such as processed cheese, semi-soft cheese or cottage cheese if mold appears.
• Pregnant women, young children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems should not consume unpasteurized cheeses or soft cheeses like Camembert, Brie, or blue-veined cheeses.
• To insure their safety, cheeses made from unpasteurized (raw) milk must be aged for at least 60 days before being sold, according to government regulations.
• Check the “sell-by” date on the carton.
• Use refrigerated yogurt within 1-2 weeks after purchasing it.
• It has a shelf life of 2 to 4 months because it is stored in the freezer where bacterial growth is significantly slowed due to the colder temperatures.
• When making homemade ice cream, use pasteurized eggs, not raw eggs.
For more information about keeping dairy foods safe, refer to the Food Marketing Institute’s “The Food Keeper” brochure and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ “Keep Your Dairy and Egg Products Safe.” For additional tips to keep food in general safe, visit www.foodsafety.gov www.HomeFoodSafety.org and www.foodinsight.org. Although National Food Safety Education month is recognized in September, it’s important for all of us to take the steps to keep foods safe every month and every day.