Expensive expiration dates: If in doubt, don’t always throw it out

Some people interpret food “expiration” dates strictly to the letter of the law, tossing items the exact second they hit the date. This mentality, according to a recent study conducted by Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic called “The Dating Game,” costs American consumers roughly $165 billion a year by prematurely disposing of billions of pounds of perfectly safe to eat foods. Let’s clarify the murky world of expiration dates, with a side order of practical advice on food safety and shelf life.

Consumer Confusion

Currently there is no uniform system for dating food items in this country, with only one federal requirement that baby food and formulas have an expiration date. So ultimately the consumer has to interpret the bevy of bewildering terms, including, “best by,” “use by” or “sell by,” then make a judgment call on when to ditch their food. Basically, conservative dates are chosen by the manufacturer mainly to protect its brand and having little to do with food safety.

“Best by” usually refers to the quality of a shelf-stable product like peanut butter, jam and ketchup. So a jar of spicy brown mustard that is stamped, “Best by September 2013,” is probably safe to consume, although the color, texture and flavor will likely be compromised compared to a jar marked, “Best by April 2014.”

“Sell by” is an inventory code telling retailers when to pull the product from their shelves. “Sell bys” are typically used on perishables, like meats, fish, fowl and dairy products. Although you should not buy items past the “sell by” date, if properly stored at home, you could stretch that date, and still enjoy safely after the fact. For instance, milk, or better yet buttermilk (which is sour anyway) when continuously refrigerated will probably last another week after the “sell by” date.

When you see “use by” or “freeze by,” again it’s probably a perishable item, and in this case you should consume or freeze by that date to avoid spoiling. But if the label says, “best if used by,” this gives a little wiggle room, as only the quality of the item is affected, not its safety.

“Guaranteed fresh by” is the typical warning jargon for baked goods, but they are certainly safe to eat after that date, although past their peak.

Finally, “expires on” is a date that should be strictly adhered to. So if you choose to consume this item after the date — chow down at your own risk!

Dating tips

If products are past the “best by” or “sell by” date, you can always use the old school testing methods of seeing, smelling, touching (and in some cases tasting). If it has a peculiar odor, evidence of fur or freezer burn, or tastes off, then dump it.

When shopping, look for the latest dates on items, even if you have to dig to the back (where the fresher ones are shelved). In any event, never purchase anything that is past the date, and get into the habit of jotting down the date of purchase on all your food items from perishables to canned goods.

Extending expirations

By following safe food handling and storage techniques, you will extend dates, waste less food and be kind to your wallet. At the supermarket pack perishables in ice and don’t lollygag — go straight home and refrigerate (or freeze) immediately. Once items are frozen, expiration dates are reset, possibly stretching the shelf life by months.

Keep refrigeration temperatures below 41 degrees Fahrenheit, and the fridge should not be left open for more than a few seconds or it’ll create an opportunity for spoilage.

As a general rule of thumb, eggs can be stored for 3 weeks after purchase, poultry and seafood 1-2 days, beef, pork and lamb 3-5 days.


Canned goods are practically indestructible. If stored in a cool, dry place canned foods are probably safe to eat after 3 years. The exception is bulging cans rife with botulism, and should be chucked regardless of the expiration date.

Vinegar has an indefinite shelf life. Whole spices keep their integrity for 3-4 years, ground spices 2-3 years, and dried herbs 1-2 years. Certain wines even improve with age. But the Methuselah of foods is precious honey, which has been found preserved in Pharaohs’ tombs for thousands of years.

Longevity Honey Sesame Marinade

3 teaspoons liquid honey

2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil

2 teaspoons fresh lime juice

2 teaspoons soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated ginger

1 garlic clove, minced

1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds

Sea salt and cracked pepper to taste

METHOD: In a bowl, whisk together ingredients. Store in an airtight container and refrigerate for several weeks. Serve as a salad dressing or marinade for wild caught salmon, chicken or stir-fried vegetables.

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