Food product dates can be a useful guide in assessing the peak quality of an item, however, one should avoid viewing expiration dates as a deadline for product safety. In the U.S., expiration dates are unregulated, with the exception of infant formula, which is regulated on a federal level.
When labeling packaged food, “Use By” dates refer to the safety of an item, as determined by the manufacturer, whilst “Best By” dates are concerned with a product’s quality. Additionally, some items may have shelf dates, printed as “Sell By“, which are for retail purposes only, meant to keep displays aesthetically appealing.
Although the quality of food diminishes by the packaged date, if stored at 40 degrees Fahrenheit (F) or below, it will remain in good condition long after the date has passed. Furthermore, the day before an item’s expiration date, it can be frozen and, upon being thawed, used safely within 24 hours.
Still, many costumers, influenced by food date labels, may throw out food prematurely. Likewise, certain foods, especially breads and other baked goods, may, due to improper storage, develop bacteria growth before the expiration date.
Because of the inconsistencies in package labeling, it is more useful to acquire a knack for evaluating an item’s level of safety based on physical properties, rather than relying on printed dates.
Many factors contribute to a product’s longevity; taking into account whether it was harvested in optimal conditions, how it was processed, and the duration spent being transported to retailers; not to mention whether the food was exposed to extreme fluctuations in temperature. Be careful when assessing foods that are scarred or blemished as they may still be safe for consumption, though their taste may be compromised. If, however, food has developed a discerning odor, flavor or appearance, you’d do well to dispose of it, ideally through composting.
In addition to detecting spoilage, it is important to know how to properly prepare and store specific items. This will greatly enhance the shelf-life of your food and keep yourself safe from food-borne illnesses in the process.
Always practice good sanitation before handling food. You’ll want to wash thoroughly for at least 20 seconds, to ensure you’ve rid yourself of as many germs as possible. This is the most effective way to prevent the spreading of harmful bacteria and viruses.
In regards to food storage, perhaps the most crucial factor is temperature. If improperly stored, foods can become host to bacteria that can cause food-borne illnesses, whether or not expired. For optimal storage, keep your refrigerator set to 40 degrees F and your freezer at zero degrees F. Pantries should be kept at room temperature, between 60 – 70 degrees F.
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