Even if we've planned to the tee and followed all the best techniques, sometimes things don't go exactly how we want. It's important to understand when to call it quits and compost that food instead, but many people are quitting way too early because of confusing labels or cosmetic imperfections.
The dates printed on food packaging are widely misunderstood. These dates are the manufacturer’s best estimate of when the product is at peak quality and are not federally regulated. There are a number of different types of date labels that all mean different things. According to the USDA:
- Best if Used By/Before: indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
- Sell-By: tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date.
- Use-By: the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula as described below.
- Freeze-By: indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
These dates do not indicate food safety and many foods are still perfectly safe to eat well after these dates. The one exception is infant formula; expiration dates on these should always be strictly followed. Also practice extra caution with meats, dairies, and a few other higher risk items. Read more about date labels and food safety from the USDA.
How Long Will It Last
So if the dates stamped on our food can't definitively tell us if food is good to eat, how can we know? It's important to do what you feel comfortable with. If you aren't sure whether it's safe, it's best to eir on the side of caution. There are some products that you should especially be careful with. Use the links below to understand shelf life and food safety.
- Food Safety - Department of Health and Human Services
- Shelf Life - Department of Health and Human Services
- Asses Food Safety with Your Senses - Solana Center blog
Beautiful On the Inside
Often food is perfectly good to eat even though it has cosmetic imperfections like scratches or is slightly misshapen. These items might be rejected before getting to the store shelves or avoided by customers and left to spoil on the shelf, but they would have tasted great and been totally safe. Even bruises and bird pecks can be fine, just cut around them. Show ugly produce some love and eat imperfect foods! Check out Imperfectfoods to get these tasty rejects delivered to your home.
Past Its Prime, But Still Edible!
No, we are not recommending to hold your nose and scarf down that slimy lettuce. Food should be enjoyed! But there are lots of ways to repurpose less fresh food into new delicious ingredients. Here are some examples:
The following are a few examples of sites that have great tips for reusing scraps and past prime food.