When was the last time you threw something away because it had surpassed its Sell By date? Most of us do it instinctively because we equate that date with food poisoning, but as an incredibly interesting article by LifeHacker points out — those labels don’t really mean what we think they mean.
Why The Dates Exist
According to the article, by the time the 1970s rolled around, Americans were buying the majority of their food from big grocery stores instead of local markets and farmers. Because of this shift, stores began to print codes on their products to help managers know when to rotate their stock.
When customers realized there was some kind of secret freshness code, they asked to be let in on the secret, and stores began to print dates that alluded to optimal buying or using dates.
The thing was, these dates weren’t regulated (even though Congress tried a few times), and so states decided to make their own rules. This means that even if you’re buying the exact same product in Idaho and Florida, the Sell By may be different. And some states, like Nebraska, Utah, South Dakota and Idaho, don’t require those dates at all.
Explanation Of Certain Dates
According to LifeHacker, you can decode some of the more common labels this way:
Sell By: This tells the supermarket how long to display a product before rotating its stock.
Use by or Best Before: This tells you when to use the product by for the best flavor quality and has nothing to do with food safety.
Expiration Date: Expiration dates are typically meant as a suggestion for the last date you can consume food.
Typically, the dates are left up to the companies that produce them, and even though some of their math revolves around when a product starts to lose its optimum flavor or goes bad, their agenda is to ultimately get you to buy more of the same item as fast as possible. So yes, they probably make those dates sooner than needed.
It’s also pretty impossible to decode exactly when food is going to spoil, since a lot of factors (time spent on a truck, how long it sits on your counter before you put it away, even how cold your fridge is) play into it.
Instead Of Relying On ‘Sell By’ Dates, Do This…
Ironically enough, your eyes and ears are your best defense against bad food. If something looks or smells a little funky, chances are it probably is.
Websites like Eat By Date are also a good reference as to when, in general, certain foods spoil.
Remember, just because food is a bit older than the Sell By date doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to make you sick. In fact, most people get sick from improper preparation or handling of food, so the most important thing to pay attention to is how you’re storing and thawing certain items.