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Foods past stamped date may not be expired

What do 'sell by', 'best by', 'use by' really mean?

SAN ANTONIO - Chances are you've got a can of soup, bottle of salad dressing or carton of milk in the fridge or pantry that's passed the stamped date. So, do you toss it or eat it anyway?

"People say, 'Oh, I should take those out and throw them away when it goes past this time.' No, you don't have to," said Sue Cunningham Ph.D., registered dietitian with UT Health Science Center. 

Typically, you see "best by" or "sell by" dates on food products.   Those are more for the store to use as a matter of quality, not safety, according to Cunningham.

"The 'use by' date gives the consumer a little more information," she said.

While that sounds like an official expiration date, the only product the federal government mandates an expiration date for is infant formula and some baby foods.

What about milk?  If the date on the jug has come and gone, do you really want to pour it on your Cheerios?

"It can be (consumed) up to a week after that date," Cunningham said. "It depends on how well it was stored." 

Milk that is kept in the refrigerator and not left out on the table for breakfast will last longer.

Eggs can be used three to six weeks after the date on the carton, according to Cunningham.  Again, that's if they are properly stored at 40 degrees or colder.  Milk and eggs should be stored in the back of the fridge,  not in the door.

Canned foods can last months and even years past the date on the can.  Though acidic foods, like tomatoes, can take on a metallic taste after several months.

So, how do you know when canned foods are not fit to eat?

"They swell," Cunningham said. "If you ever have a canned item that the top is swollen, bottom is swollen, sides are swollen, get rid of it."

If the seal is broken, the can should be tossed, too.

For whole grains like rice of oats, Cunningham recommended sticking with the dates on the packaging and using proper storage.

"Grains should be kept cool and dry," she said.

But a long lost box of sugary Jello dated March 2006?

"This is not a problem," she said.

Americans throw out hundreds of dollars of food every year because they think the date indicates it's unsafe to eat.

"I hate to see people waste money," Cunningham said.

Often cases of of food-borne illness are not caused by old food, but by unsafe food  handling and storage.

Bottom line, using your senses like the look, feel and smell of food can tell you as much or more than the date on the package.

For a quick resource to food date guidelines:  www.fsis.usda.gov  or www.foodsafety.gov.

For a list of recent stories Marilyn Moritz has done, click here.


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