Food Safety Sell By Date

Published on December 29th, 2012 | by Mary Gerush

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Resolve To Eat More Expired Food In The New Year

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Sell By Date

On a recent trip to visit my folks, we laughed at my mom after learning that the majority of her bottled salad dressings and condiments had “expired” years earlier. As we made fun, she argued that the food was still safe! Turns out, she was right.

Did you know those dates you see on canned goods and bottled condiments don’t have a thing to do with food safety? Those dates are all about protecting the reputation of the food and the company that produced it. And there are companies that specialize in determining what those “sell by” dates should be.

A recent NPR article explains how companies pick those dates. At California’s National Food Lab, expert tasters test food as it ages over days, weeks, even years, grading the food’s quality over time. As taste deteriorates, the grade declines. The food producer then decides at what point they no longer want their products on shelves — not because it is “spoiled” but because it won’t taste good enough.

According to John Ruff, president of the Institute of Food Technologists, most food is safe to eat long after that “sell by” date. It may not taste its best, but it won’t make you sick. He couldn’t recall a single product recall or food poisoning case related to shelf life in the last 40 years.

He suggests giving expired food the sniff test. If it smells OK, it probably is.

I’m a bit squeamish when it comes to those dates. After all, milk rots instantly at midnight on the date printed on its carton. But I’ve learned a lot this year about food waste in America: Food production consumes 10% of our energy budget, 50% of our land, and 80% of the freshwater we use. We throw away more than 40% of the food produced in the US. This adds up to over $165 billion thrown away each year in a country where one in six people lack a secure food supply and heaps of uneaten food rotting in landfills producing 25% of our methane emissions.

So, in 2013, I’ll be a little more forgiving to that expired food and waste less of it.

Image Credit: Lars Plougmann via flickr/CC

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About the Author

Hi all! I'm Mary Gerush - a recovering corporate worker bee turned good-farm-real-food advocate and writer who wants to help people understand what they're eating. I tend a tiny urban farm in Dallas, TX, and hope to scale up one day soon. Omnivore through-and-through, there's not much I love to eat more than a butter-basted grass fed steak fresh from a searing hot cast iron skillet. Follow me on , , and !



  • AEM

    I just investigated my pantry and most of the cans say “Best by ….” which must mean they don’t expire. I would guess dogs would be good testers, although they might eat anything. But, if a dog refuses it, DO NOT eat it!
    Milk: the date is the “sell by” date so it expires at midnight 48 hours after the printed date.

  • Jessica

    Thank you! I’m forwarding this on. I’ve been shopping salvaged food for years and many people scoff at it. It’s good food and way cheaper!

    • Mary Gerush

      Jessica – I’m learning! I had chicken breasts that “expired” on January 8th. I hadn’t cooked them, and on January 11th, the old me would’ve tossed them. But no! I noticed that Jan 8 was the sell-by date. I used the sniff test. They smelled just fine. Cooked…ate…survived. :-)

  • alh

    Bottom line is that Americans are very wasteful in what we have. Our resources will eventually run dry. We are ruining our land internationally by pollution, overpopulation and misguided food practices. before the industrial revo;lution when we could mass produced canned goods, etc….. people were more self sufficent and less wasteful. Environmenal aspects and over cautious comsumers and producers, are wreaking havoc on our food chain. WE all need to re-learn how to live being minimalists instead of nations of consumerism. Environemantl aspects, food safety and health .. it is a double edged sword.

    • Mary Gerush

      We’re doing our best to spread the word. Thanks for the comments.

  • Pingback: The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and their partners just launched a new campaign to help the world get out of its immense food waste predicament. | Eat Drink Better

  • Janet Selton

    Well, you can leave me out of the list of people that waste food, because I have been eating expire foods for 10+ years, I just made a cake that expire one year ago and it did just find and tasted great. Well Americas, quit wasting food and chow down!!!!!!!

    • Mary Gerush

      You go girl! :-)

      • Cheryl Royer

        I too have been using expired food products for years. My children argue with me about it, and I have always told them to smell it first. If not a bad smell then it is probably still good. The manufactures only do this cause they have to, causes so much waste in our world where some people have no food. We are a very wasteful and selfish society!!!! I so agree with Mary G.

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