Food safety: Best-by, use-by, sell-by dates

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KNOXVILLE (WATE) – Have you ever used salad dressing after its best by date or felt like you were taking a gamble buying chicken or beef on a manager’s special? if so, you are not alone.  In fact, food safety experts say many people don’t understand the dates on their food and don’t realize, they are not expiration dates.

Cheryl Priano is a busy mom of 2 young girls.   Like many shoppers she told us, “I always think the date on it is the date you need to get rid of it, no matter what it says.”

Priano let us dig through her fridge which was filled with fresh foods, but we did find a few that were past the dates on the packaging.

We started with a grape jelly dated 12/17/14.  Priano said she might still use the jelly.

Then we found a deli spinach artichoke dip, about 2 weeks past its date.  Priano felt a bit different about this item.  Kristin told her that out of date dairy items made her nervous too.

But should she be nervous?  Many are surprised to learn  there are no laws requiring dates on food, except on infant formulas.  That means the dates you see on foods are simply guidelines or a courtesy from manufacturers.

University of Tennessee food science expert Dr. David Golden helped clear up the confusion. He said most things, like expired condiments, don’t pose a big health risk, they might just taste bad.  As for that spinach artichoke dip though he told Priano, “that’s probably not a product I would keep any longer.”

Dr. Golden said this particular item’s moisture content and the fact that it had been opened, was cause for concern.   But he stressed, you don’t have to throw things away just because of a date stamped on the package.  “There is still a good shelf life after it is brought home and left in refrigerator,” he told us.

Mellissa Eads, a spokesperson at Kroger, talks about how they handle dates on food products.

The USDA spells out the differences on the dates like this:

  • Sell-by is how long an item should be on display in stores.
  • Use-by and Best-by dates are for recommended peak quality.

Dr. Golden says eating foods after these dates is rarely a health risk, unless the food has been mishandled or cross contaminated.  However there is one food item he says is not worth the gamble and that is meat.

“If you are in doubt, throw it out. I’ve never known anyone to get food poisoning from being too cautious,” said Dr. Golden.

The USDA and the FDA have actual charts and guidelines with recommendations on how long you should keep some foods after posted dates and after you open them.

Also Dr. Golden reminded all of us, our noses and mouths are 2 of our best indicators.  If something smells or tastes funny he told us, just get rid of it.

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