Sell-by, use-by, display-by – it can sometimes seem as if you need a PHD to navigate the world of what foods you can eat – and when. Luckily for you, we’ve outlined all you need to know in our handy guide!
Let’s start with the terminology:
- Expiration date. The last date a food should be used. Ultimately, however, this is just a suggestion.
- Sell-by date: This one’s for the store – telling it how long to display the product for sale and when to pull it from its shelves. It’s not mandatory to display this, however, so make sure you reach back in to get the freshest. The issue here is the quality of the item, for example freshness, taste and consistency, as opposed to whether it’s spoiled. As senior faculty member at the Center for Food and Beverage Management of Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Paul VanLandingham, is reported to have said, the sell by date “is the last day the item is at its highest level of quality, but it will still be edible for some time after.”
- Best before. This also refers to quality, not safety. Think flavor or quality as opposed to food poisoning. However, “the best before date will only be accurate if the food is stored according to the instructions on the packaging”, says Dr Hamid Ghoddusi, Food Scientist at London Metropolitan University.
- Use by date. “The most important date to remember”, according to Dr Ghoddusi. “Foods can be eaten until the use-by date but not after.”
- Guaranteed fresh. Used primarily for bakery items, indicating peak freshness. It will still be edible after this date (just maybe not as tasty!).
So, now we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get down to the nitty gritty of food.
- Usually lasts a week after sell-by date.
- Good for 3-5 weeks. Egg substitutes, on the other hand, are only good for 10 days if unopened, 3-5 days if opened.
- Poultry and seafood. Cook or freeze within a day or two.
- Beef and pork. Cook or freeze within three to five days.
- Ground meat. Because the bacteria is mixed throughout the meat, the FDA recommends consuming this within two days of purchase.
- Deli meat. Susceptible to a type of bacteria called Listeria that multiplies in cold environments, pre-packaged deli meats will last slightly longer than those sliced fresh, but once the seal is opened consume within three to five days. As soon as you spot any slime and/or funky smells, toss.
- Soft cheeses, like ricotta, cream cheese or goat cheese, are more susceptible to mold and should be tossed at the first sign of spoiling or once the expiration date has passed (usually about one week). Harder cheeses, on the other hand, such as cheddar or gouda, have a longer shelf life because it’s more difficult for mold to get in to them. Once opened, they can last up to six months in the refrigerator, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
- With a very short lifespan, these will only last for about three to five days in the fridge. After that, they are susceptible to a bacteria called Cyclospora Cayetanensis, which can cause diarrhoea, bloating, vomiting, and other food poisoning symptoms. Most other fruits, however, are usually safe to eat – even when they get sweeter (which happens as more of its enzymes are broken into sugar over time.).
- Grown in warm climates, meaning they’re the ideal breeding ground for bacteria almost straight away. Use as close to purchase as possible.
- Canned goods. Can keep for 18 months to five years, depending on the acidity of the contents and where it’s being kept. “You do not want to put cans in a hot place like a crawl space or garage”, the professor of food and nutrition at Texas A&M University is reported to have said, recommending a temperature of 50 to 70 degrees in a dry, dark space.
- Jarred condiments. More susceptible to bacteria than you might think, due – in part – to the knife or spoon that dips in and out of it in a single use (think spreading jam on your toast, for example.). If you notice any floating water, discoloration or weird smells, toss it immediately.
- Freshly squeezed juices. Delicious, yes, but without the pasteurization process that kills bacteria, make sure you drink these within 48-72 hours.
It should go without saying (we hope!) but anything with mold should be thrown away immediately!
Of course, determining whether something is still good to eat comes down to exercising common sense – also key in choosing how to store food properly. According to VanLandingham, the “temperature danger zone” is between 41 and 140 degrees, so time spent outside refrigeration, for example in the car or on the kitchen table, should be kept to a minimum – no longer than four hours.
Foods also require different optimum temperatures, which is why it is so important to keep items in their respective homes in the fridge (milk in the door and vegetables in the drawer, for example).
Unnecessary waste is a huge issue, with millions of dollars’ worth of food being thrown away prematurely, according to a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) AND Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic. Most of the time, we can – and should – use the five senses we were blessed with in our fight against foodborne menaces.
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