Thursday, June 4, 2009

Expiration Dates: The 8th Wonder of the World

Dear Tricia, What's up with expiration dates on food items? Not only does there seem to be no set rules for what they mean (open by dates, use by dates, freeze by dates, just dates, etc...) but they are usually at best archaic. Just dates are the most confusing. Should these be translated as open by, use by, throw away by or what? As placing dates on food items seems to add a certain level of "danger" to the food can you shed some light on this, one of the great mysteries of life.

Good one, my friend. Along with the pyramids, unraveling the mystery of expiration dates is something one can ponder for a lifetime. You have no idea how many phone calls I've got from my boyfriend wondering if he can still eat the ground beef in his refrigerator or if its gone bad.
Most dates on meats are "sell by" dates but you can definitely eat them after that date. Your grocery store just does this to make sure their bums are covered if you decide to give yourself food poisoning by undercooking your chicken.
If you're not sure how long you can eat meat after its "sell by" date, you've got to just go with your best judgment. If your judgment is poor to begin with, like if you're one of those people who pops a wheelie on a motorcycle on the freeway, then throw it out a few days after the sell-by date. Every commercial kitchen knows the phrase "When it doubt, throw it out." If it smells bad, throw it out. If you're not sure if it smells bad, throw it out. Some other signs that its gone bad:

1. Its ground lamb, but it smells like rotten bacon.
2. The plastic is puffed up away from the meat.
3. It has grown eyes and is giving you dirty looks.
4. Its green.
If the meat is ground beef and it has turned gray, but it still smells fine, go ahead and use it. That's just the color oxidizing, but it is still safe to eat. And if you notice that the date is coming up soon, just put it in the freezer. Thawing it out and eating it after that date is perfectly safe.

For dairy products, again, the dates are "sell-by" dates and I think we're all guilty of drinking milk the day after the date on the lid. Seriously, just smell it. If it smells bad, throw it out. With eggs, same thing. Yogurt is fine up to a week after the sell-by date.
For non perishables like cereal, hot sauce, and chips, those are usually "use by" dates. The only thing you have to worry about is the flavor and texture starting to stale. Those are products that already have shelf life of at least a year, so what's a few days difference going to make?
For perishables like salad dressings, pickles, ketchup, etc., those are also usually "use by" dates. Use the same judgment that you would for everything else: smell it, and if you're not sure, throw it out. If its starting to bubble or the lid is starting to pop up (gross), definitely throw it out. Or hide it under someone you don't like's car seat in August.
Again, be smart about what you throw out. Eating bad meat is something that's likely going to get you sicker than eating bad Cheerios, so if you're not sure, trash it. And like I said, if you have bad judgment to begin with, (like if you enjoy listening to Nickelback on a regular basis), just get ride of it on the sell-by date.

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