Question of the Week

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 that date.
* '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 passed.
* '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' dates."

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

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