Expiration Dates – What Gives?

I spent a good part of my Christmas holiday watching my two young cousins empty their mother’s pantry of perfectly good food — all because the expiration date had passed. I’m not talking curdled milk or rotting meat. They were fully prepared to toss an unopened sleeve of water crackers because they thought they would make them sick since the expiration date had passed.

Crackers, people! (Is this what the softening of America looks like? What happened to the hale and hearty pioneers who actually had to kill their food? What would they think of us and our fancy refrigeration and weak constitutions? Do you think Caroline Ingalls was worried about expiration dates during those torturous Minnesota winters? Yes, that’s a Little House in the Prairie reference and yes, I am old.)

They watched me curiously as I ate the crackers because A – I wanted to prove a point and B – I needed a sturdy vessel to carry my aunt’s salmon dip from the bowl to my mouth. Mission accomplished on both counts. I didn’t die or even get a cramp and the dip’s minutes were numbered.

Conspiracy theorist that I am, I’m convinced these dates are part of a marketing ploy by manufacturers to get you to buy more stuff, but the dates do have a meaning and it’s not always what you think.

There are two categories of dating stamps: open dating, calendar dates found on perishable foods and closed dating, dates represented by a code on canned or boxed foods. With open dating there are three options — Sell by, Best if Used By/Before and Use By.

Sell By gives you the last date stores should sell the product. If you pick up a product and the sell by date has passed, don’t buy it. If you have it at home and the sell by date passes this doesn’t mean it’s unsafe to eat. According to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, if you’ve handled the food safely and kept it packaged and stored properly foods should still be “safe, wholesome and of good quality.”

A Best If Used By or Before date lends a nod to the quality, not safety, of the food. Consuming it after the Best If Used By date means the food may not be at its peak taste or appearance, but it’s still safe to eat.

Use By dates are dates the manufacturer recommends eating the product by in order to enjoy it at its best.

You can get more deets on expiration dates and labeling from the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, but common sense is always your friend.

Unopened jarred or canned foods are meant to last, which is why they’re the stuff survivalists stock their bomb shelters with. Your canned tomatoes may not be as perky and fresh after the expiration date (your crackers not as crisp), but they’re likely still safe to eat. That said, if it looks funny, tastes funny and smells like the end of days, it probably is.

P.S. If anyone knows of a case of food poisoning by cracker, please let me know. I’ve been feeling a little weak.

Expiration Dates

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