As the world is dealing with this unprecedented health crisis that is COVID-19, it is difficult to know whether to write on topics related to the major headline of the day to help inform, or to write about something completely unrelated to the major headline of the day to help distract. When I asked my husband for his advice on this quandary, he suggested going with the former but writing on a helpful topic that isn’t getting much coverage. I considered that good advice to follow and, in this time of stay-at-home laws, self-quarantines, and a dramatic shift away from eating out towards eating at home, I wondered how people are handling their purchases made during this phenomenon of runs on grocery stores. Shelves are picked over or completely empty. People are buying things in excess for reasons I don’t quite understand, such as bottled water and toilet paper. After all, tap water is still safe to drink, and the current situation should not cause an increase in the average person’s bathroom activities.
But along with toilet paper, bottled water, face masks, and bottles of bleach, an underlying sense of uncertainty is causing people to scurry occasionally to a grocery store, fill their carts with staple foods, then scurry home to bathe in Purell. Once decontaminated, shoppers unload their dozen or so shopping bags and put foodstuffs in their proper places: canned tuna in the pantry, fresh chicken thighs in the refrigerator, and frozen peas in the chest freezer. But how long will all that food last? Is it wise to buy so much food at once? To answer these questions, let us consider label dates and how to interpret them.
You may be surprised to learn that label dates on many food items (e.g., USE BY JAN/01/2020) are not required by law, except for infant formula (Food and Drug Administration [FDA], 2019). Eggs also have special rules: “Sell By” dates are not federally mandated, but states might have rules requiring their use, and egg cartons bearing a USDA grade shield must also display the Julian date on which the eggs were washed, graded, and packed (United States Department of Agriculture [USDA], 2019). For other foods, dates are voluntarily added by food manufacturers to provide guidance on how long a food can maintain its quality and safety. This type of dating is called “open dating,” and its appearance must follow a certain format: dates on fresh items must contain the month and day of the month, and the year is additionally required for frozen items (9 CFR §317, 2020). A defining phrase must also precede the date, and while FDA is urging producers to adopt “Best if Used By” as a standard for many items (FDA, 2019), phrases such as “Use By,” “Sell By,” even “Enjoy By” can be found on food products across the country (Kenworthy, Schiavocampo, Weber, 2014). Some foods even carry a “Freeze By” date, indicating the product can maintain its quality after being frozen in its original packaging (USDA, 2019).
A variety of factors impact the label date applied to a food item: ingredients, packaging type, storage conditions, and the likelihood of spoilage all help determine how long a food can maintain its safety and quality (USDA, 2019). Unfortunately, while label dates for more perishable items like meat, dairy, bread, and eggs should be closely followed, misinterpretation of label dates often leads to unnecessary food waste (FDA, 2019) Interpretation of label dates requires some discretion of the consumer. Does the steak in the fridge smell like rotten roadkill two days before its label date? Chuck it out. Does the loaf of pumpernickel in the breadbox with a week left have so much fuzz it could be mistaken for a small dog? Chuck it out. Does the “expired” baking cocoa in the cupboard smell and look exactly the same as it did when you bought it? Hang onto it a bit longer.
Understandably, some consumers might be looking for more sound advice on how much to trust label dates. Thankfully, some very helpful resources are available to provide guidance on the length of time foods can last under the proper storage conditions. First up is the FoodKeeper powered by FoodSafety.gov (managed by the US Department of Health and Human Services). This handy website (and app!) allows you to search for foods by category to find out how long they can be stored in opened and unopened containers. Some food types also come with cooking tips. It’s a fun way to see the range of shelf lives for different products. For example, dry pasta made without eggs can be stored for up to 2 years in a pantry, but ground lamb should be eaten within 1-2 days of placing it in your refrigerator.
Next up: the Cold Food Storage Chart also powered by FoodSafety.gov. As I mentioned, some food products, due to their makeup and processing methods, are more perishable and should be kept in a refrigerator or freezer. Proper storage will lengthen the amount of time the food is safe to eat (United States Department of Health and Human Services [DHHS], 2019). The very handy Cold Food Storage Chart site lists popular types of foods such as macaroni salad, raw bacon, egg quiche, and even leftover pizza with how long they can safely be kept refrigerated or frozen (if applicable; DHHS does not recommend freezing homemade eggnog).
In conclusion, unless you’re considering the label date on infant formula, use discretion on when to throw out food. Use your senses (except taste, please) to detect spoilage while using the label date as guidance. Utilize resources created by some very smart and helpful people (these are your tax dollars at work!). And, if you’re “panic buying,” ease up a bit. Buying food at a normal rate will reduce food waste and limit the crazy demands on grocery stores and their suppliers at this time.
Bonus: If you or your family members are getting REALLY bored, take up the Label Date Challenge! Who can find the farthest out label date? The closest? This is also a good way to clean out the fridge, freezer, and pantry using your good judgment and guidance from authorities on whether to keep it or toss it. And of course, remember the old adage: “If in doubt, throw it out.”
9 CFR §317 (b)(32), 2020. Retrieved from https://gov.ecfr.io/cgi-bin/text-idx?SID=9f252ac17f0abd4af42cbd0856eb74a8&mc=true&node=se9.2.317_18&rgn=div8.
Food and Drug Administration (2019). How to cut food waste and maintain food safety. Food Facts. [PDF]. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/media/101389/download.
Kenworthy, A., Schiavocampo, M., Weber,V. (01 Oct. 2014). Food label confusion: “Best by,” “Sell by,” Use by” don’t mean much, experts say. ABCNews. Retrieved from https://abcnews.go.com/GMA/food-label-confusion-best-sell-dont-expert/story?id=25878053.
United States Department of Agriculture (02 Oct. 2019). Food product dating. Food Safety and Inspection Service. Retrieved from https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/food-labeling/food-product-dating/food-product-dating.
United States Department of Health and Human Services (12 Apr. 2019). Cold Food Storage Chart. FoodSafety.gov. Retrieved from https://www.foodsafety.gov/food-safety-charts/cold-food-storage-charts.