So you’re getting ready to make a quick breakfast omelet, but before you can crack open an egg you notice that the expiration date on the egg carton pas passed. What to do?
Did you know that, except for poultry, infant formula and some baby food, product dating is not required by the federal government? More than 20 states, however, mandate dating of some foods. When dates are applied to a product, generally by the manufacturer and sometimes by the store selling the item, they can be stated in a variety of ways. Here’s a breakdown on what they mean so that you can be sure to get the healthiest foods at the grocery store:
“Use by,” “Best if used by,“ or “Quality” date: These are the last day at which the product is likely to be at peak flavor and quality. These types of dates are often printed on foods such as cereal, which, while they may decrease in flavor and quality over time, they aren’t unsafe to eat after that date.
“Sell by” or “Pull”: These indicate to the retailer the last day that a product should be sold. While you should purchase items before this date, you don’t have to use it by then. Milk, for example, can be consumed up to about a week after the sell-by date.
Pack or package date: This is the date that the food, such as fresh meat, was packed or processed. As a consumer, choose which package is freshest.
“Expiration”: For most foods, the expiration date is the last day the item should be eaten or used. However, eggs are an exception: federally graded eggs purchased before the expiration date, you should be able to use them safely for the next 3 to 5 weeks. See “Expired Eggs” for a trick to test egg freshness.
As a rule, canned foods that have a high acid content (such as tomatoes) can be stored on the shelf for 12-18 months; low-acid canned foods that are properly stored, such as meat, fish, and most vegetables, will keep for 2-5 years. Never use a can that’s bulging or dented.
Perishable foods that are packaged and frozen properly will be safe to eat after the expiration date, although freezer burn may be present if the food has been stored for a long time.
For more information, visit the Consumer Reports’ report on food dating.