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Food packaging expiration dates: what do they mean?

Almost all of us forget that canned foods have been stored for so long that they have expired, leading to the problem of food waste.

This history has long confused consumers, with many wondering what exactly it means and whether it is safe to consume "expired" food or if it should be thrown away.

According to experts, the answer to these questions is a bit complicated.

What does the date on canned food mean?

This date can be found printed on the lid, label, or elsewhere on the food packaging.

Phrases indicating the expiration date vary, including “best by/Best used before by” or “use by.”

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) explains that the date label on food must indicate the last date the food maintained its highest levels of quality and flavor. Date labels are intended to reflect quality, not food safety.

The use of the phrase “best for/before” indicates that the product may not taste or perform as expected but is safe for use or consumption.

Since the written date does not mean the expiration date, food that does not show signs of spoilage can still be eaten after the specified date.

Abby Snyder, assistant professor of food science at Cornell's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, explained that quality changes can include product splitting (such as when you try to get ketchup out of the bottle, but a watery red liquid comes out instead) or "spoilage microbes" that It can make your food taste different, but it "doesn't make the food unsafe."

When does food become unsafe to eat?

The USDA explains that if the expiration date passes while the food is in your home, the food “remains safe and healthy if handled properly until it shows spoilage.”

The ministry says signs of spoilage include “the disappearance of smell, flavour, or texture due to naturally occurring spoilage bacteria,” adding that “if food develops such spoilage characteristics, it should not be eaten.”

Many foods include instructions on how to store them. For example, ketchup labels recommend refrigerating after opening (although you don't necessarily need to do this) or storing black pepper in a "cool, dry place."

The USDA points out that when food is not stored according to recommended guidelines, bacteria can grow faster and quality can suffer.

As a conclusion, if you grab a jar of peanut butter or a bowl of yogurt and notice that it's one day past its expiration date, that doesn't mean it should be thrown straight into the trash. According to the USDA and FDA, you will only need to check whether the food is still good quality or whether it contains any perishable bacteria (advice that can be followed even days before the expiration date), in order to determine if it can be consumed or not.

Source: Published 5-3-2024 - The Hill -

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