September 04, 2006
Vacation is officially
over. The school year has begun. For many students, this means once
again being responsible for finding something to eat, whether at
the grocery store -- or in the cupboard at home. Before getting
to the ingredients or the "Nutrition Facts" somewhere
on the side, there is another important thing to note. Is the food
still good to eat?
"Food companies imprint
or stamp dates that, depending on the product, tell you how long
the item can be kept before it loses its freshness, safety or both.
These dates are mostly voluntary; there is no federal law saying
that companies must have this information on their foods. The only
exception is baby food and baby formula. Such foods can lose their
nutrients after a certain date as well as their flavor. Do not give
your baby these foods after the
date has passed."
"These dates are mostly
voluntary..." for the companies to stamp onto the packaging,
and for the stores which sell the food to use as guidelines.
"Stores are not legally required to remove food once the expiration
date has passed. ... States have varying laws. Most states require
that milk and other perishables be sold before the expiration date."
Whether the food has been
sitting in home for as long as anyone can remember, or it has been
sitting on the shelf of the grocery store for an equally long period
of time, it is important to not only check the date, but to check
the type of date in order to determine its meaning.
"There are generally
four types of dates on food:
* 'Sell by' or 'pull by' - This is mostly for the manufacturer to
tell grocers when the product should stop being sold. It does not
mean the product is bad once it reaches that date. For example,
milk can be safe and still have its flavor seven to 10 days after
the sell-by date. Chicken can be good for one to two days after
* 'Best if used by' (or 'before') - This is a date recommended by
the manufacturer for the best flavor, texture or quality. It does
not mean the product is no longer safe to eat once that date has
* 'Use by' (expiration date) - This is the last date on which the
product should be eaten. It may appear like this: 'Do not use after
January 1, 2006.' Food is no longer safe to eat after this date.
Throw it out.
* Closed or coded dates - These are packing codes, which help track
the product as it is shipped across state lines. These usually appear
on cans and some boxed goods and refer to the date when the product
was packaged. Having such a date helps the manufacturer know where
the products are in case of a recall. These dates are not 'use-by'
But if the dates aren't
even required, how important can they be?
"The dates on packages
of food are guidelines to help the consumer use food at its peak
quality and before spoilage occurs. Generally, the dates on food
apply only to unopened packages, and once opened, they should be
used in one week. ... Be sure to read food labels for food storage
instructions such as 'refrigerate after opening' or 'keep frozen'."
While a food may not be
at its best shortly after its expiration date, it may not be harmful.
"Except for 'use-by'
dates, product dates don't always refer to home storage and use
after purchase. But even if the date expires during home storage,
a product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality -- if handled
properly and kept at 40° F or below. ... Foods can develop an
off odor, flavor or appearance due to spoilage bacteria. If a food
has developed such characteristics, you should not use it for quality
reasons. If foods are mishandled, however, foodborne bacteria can
grow and cause foodborne illness -- before or after the date on
the package. For example, if hot dogs are taken to a picnic and
left out several hours, they wouldn't be safe if used thereafter,
even if the date hasn't expired."
While some foods may be
safe, and others hazardous only if they are mishandled, still others
can become quite hazardous on their own.
"Eating outdated pancake
mix could be fatal, health officials in South Carolina said. They
said a 19-year-old who suffered from a mold allergy died because
of an allergic reaction to pancake mix that was two years old. Parkland
Emergency Medicine Dr. Paul Pepe said the danger arises when mold
spores grow on stale pancake mix."
While there is no way to
know for certain if a food will last beyond its expiration date,
there are some guidelines which may help when trying to make a determination
based strictly on date. Details for each of the products listed
below can be found on the site given below the quote.
DAIRY [including]: Cream... Milk... Yogurt... Butter... Sour Cream...
Cheese... Margarine... Eggs...
MEAT [including]: Lunch Meat... Ground Beef, Poultry... Smoked &
Cured Meats... Whole Hams...
FROZEN MEAT [including]: Beef... Lamb and Pork... Poultry...
NOTE: Dairy and meat must be stored at 40 degrees or below; if they
are not stored in the cooler, Food Movers can not accept them. If
in doubt, THROW IT OUT."
Questions of the Week:
How can you tell if a fresh fruit or vegetable is good to eat? How
is this different if the food has been canned or frozen? How can
you tell if fresh meat or dairy is still good to consume? How would
this differ if the food (or drink) were canned or frozen? How are
the various types of dates printed on package helpful? When do you
need more information than just a date? When can a date be enough?
What reasons might some people have for not paying attention to
the dates? What might the positive and negative health effects be?
What other circumstances might affect the ability of the date printed
on the package to accurately portray the freshness of the food?
Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.
I look forward to reading
what you have to say.
Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum