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“When in doubt, throw it out.”

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

“When in doubt, throw it out.” While that sounds like a decidedly unscientific way to approach your groceries, it may be better than relying on “sell-by”, “use-by,” and other dates stamped on food.

By Brandon Ballenger

No food stays fresh forever. No, not even Twinkies. (Honey comes close, though.)

Knowing the expiration date is important to avoid getting sick and wasting money. But figuring out how long food actually lasts can be confusing: Labels use various phrasings to describe shelf life, like “sell by,” “use by,” and “best by.” Others seem to have only a date, with no explanation what it means.

RELATED: 5 Sneaky Tricks Your Grocer Doesn’t Want You to Know

1. End cap “specials” that are anything but

The items you see at the end of each grocery aisle – known as the “end caps” – are not typically the areas where you’ll get great deals. In fact, the end caps are often misleadingly used to push items that aren’t on sale.

Oh sure, grocers will make the end caps look festive and boldly advertise the price as if it were a good deal, but it’s usually not. In fact, end cap items often provide grocery stores with some of their biggest profits.

2. Bad deals at the checkout line

Just like the items on the end caps, you need to avoid the candy, gum, and magazines you’ll find at the checkout line. These items are almost always high profit-margin products that can really run up your bill.

3. Name-brand products placed on shelves at eye level

Why do stores do this? Because the premium you pay for name-brand products can be as much as 50 percent and sometimes even more – even though store brands are often of similar quality. If you want to save money, you’ll usually need to look down low for those store brands.

4. Sale prices on only selected product varieties

Many times, a store will advertise a sale on a product, but if you don’t read the fine print – or look closely at the price tags – you might not realize that the sale is only on certain varieties. At our store, we used to do this with Spaghetti-Os all the time. We’d put the plain Spaghetti-Os on sale, but if you bought the variety with franks or meatballs, you were stuck paying the full price.

5. Sneaky price tags

When you see a price tag that says “5 for $5,” it doesn’t necessarily mean you need to buy five items to get the deal. In fact, more often than not, you can usually get away with buying just one for a buck.

As a box boy working the late night shifts I’d occasionally mark down stuff in the bargain bin with ridiculous prices like “7 for $1.89″ or “3 for $2.37.” Just for fun.

The best part was when a happy customer would bring the marked-down item to the check stand, and I got to watch the poor checker try to figure out the unit price in his head. Of course, the checker would look at me and I’d just shrug my shoulders and give a sheepish grin. Actually, looking back, it’s a wonder I ever got promoted.
The most surprising fact when it comes to food dating? With the exception of baby food and formula, the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t require dates at all, nor is there a uniform system for dispensing them. From the USDA website:

There is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States. Although dating of some foods is required by more than 20 states, there are areas of the country where much of the food supply has some type of open date and other areas where almost no food is dated.

The most important thing when it comes to food dating is to trust your senses. If it looks, smells, or tastes off, toss it. Poor storage and packaging defects can cause food to go bad before its time. Assuming the food is properly preserved, though, here’s a quick primer on how to use dates…

Sell-by dates
These dates aren’t that helpful for predicting the expiration of food you already have at home – a week or two past may be fine, but it’s not exact. “Sell-by” reflects store policy, not USDA rules. It’s telling shelf stockers when food needs to be moved from its regular place to the store’s clearance area. Especially if you plan to cook or freeze the food immediately, sell-by dates can lead to great buys.

Use-by or best-by dates

These dates are basically quality guarantees by the manufacturer: The proper flavor and quality should last until at least this date when properly stored. Often these products are fine to eat past the listed date – but they might not taste great. The USDA says, “’Use-by’ dates usually refer to best quality and are not safety dates. But even if the date expires during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality if handled properly and kept at 40 °F or below.” Save money by not throwing out food that’s still safe if not quite as savory.

Expiration dates

While the federal government doesn’t require these, some states do on certain products – especially dairy, and often meat. This is one area where you don’t want to cut corners. If the label explicitly mentions expiration, listen to it – with one exception from EggSafety.org: “Cartons may carry an expiration date (EXP) beyond which the eggs should not be sold, but are still safe to eat.” The USDA says you have 3 to 5 weeks from purchase. That’s how the dates work. But the USDA also has a convenient list of storage times…

Fresh or uncooked food in the fridge

Follow use-by date. For a sell-by date or no date, cook or freeze within this time frame:
Hard cheese: 2-3 months
Eggs: 3-5 weeks
Yogurt: 3 weeks
Soft cheese: 1 week
Cured ham: 5-7 days
Beef, veal, pork, lamb: 3-5 days
Milk: 3-5 days
Poultry and ground meat: 1-2 days
Variety meats (liver, tongue, etc.): 1-2 days
Sausage from pork, beef, or turkey: 1-2 days

Cooked or processed foods in the fridge

Follow use-by date. For a sell-by date or no date, cook or freeze within this time frame:
Canned ham: 9 months unopened, 3-4 days after opening
Bacon or hot dogs: 2 weeks unopened, 7 days after opening
Luncheon meat: 2 weeks unopened, 3 -5 days after opening
Commercial sliced bread: 2 weeks
Cooked ham: 1 week unopened, 1 week after opening (3 days if sliced)
Cooked poultry or sausage: 3-4 days unopened, 3-4 days after opening

Pantry/cupboard

Canned fruits and vegetables: 2-5 years
High-acid foods (pickles, tomatoes): 12 to 18 months
Commercial sliced bread: 1 week

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