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Understanding food expiration dates
Difference among 'sell by,' 'use by' and 'best by'
Canned goods such as vegetables and soups have a longer shelf life and are marked with a “best by” phrase. A can of french-cut green beans are best by Aug. 23. 2014. A can of tomato soup is best by Aug. 15, 2015. - photo by J.K. Devine

Have you ever thrown out “expired” food just because the date stamped on food packages has past?

Well, you, like many Americans, might misunderstand the meaning of the product stamp.

The “sell by” date is aimed at the retailer, signaling to a grocery store when the product should be off the shelf. Once that product gets home, its “use by” or “best before” date provides a guide to when it is best eaten.

Confusion over these two types of dates is rampant, according to “The Dating Game,” a report co-authored by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic. And the upshot is up to 90 percent of Americans throw out perfectly good food, leading to an estimated $165 billion worth of edible food that gets trashed every year.

What’s more, “use by” dates are not regulated by the federal government; manufacturers decide when a given product has expired, sometimes guided by individual state regulations, sometimes by their own undisclosed systems. (One notable exception: infant formula is subject to explicit Food and Drug Administration labeling requirements.)

According to the report, “the current system of expiration dates misleads consumers to believe they must discard food in order to protect their own safety. In fact, the dates are only suggestions by the manufacturer when the food is at its peak quality, not when it is unsafe to eat.”

“The Dating Game” makes a number of sensible proposals for bringing order to this chaos. (You can read the 64-page report at But it offers no practical advice for judging whether to toss your particular bag of pretzels.

Fortunately, local food banks and food producers know how to handle food safely and when to toss a truly expired item.

Kay Blackstock, executive director of the Georgia Mountain Food Bank in Gainesville, said getting donations of past-dated foods is just a part of the drill for food salvage operations.

A general rule of thumb is to toss it if it smells bad, she said, laughing.

She said she once tasted a can of food that was dated several years earlier “just to see” and does not recommend it.

For the families relying on food from the bank, the organization takes food safety and quality very seriously. However, the date printed on the bottom of the can isn’t an exact number.

“We can distribute shelf-stable food as long as it’s within one year past the date on the label,” Blackstock said. “Now, refrigerated food is, of course, very different.”

With more perishable food items, such as milk, some common sense may be in order.

“Usually you can tell when milk is starting to go bad it will have a bit of a sour smell to it,” Scott Glover, owner of Mountain Fresh Creamery in Cleveland, said.

The key to keeping milk fresh is keeping it cold.

“Milk should never get above 40 degrees,” Glover said. “At 42 degrees, bacteria starts growing in the milk. There is natural bacteria in the milk, so naturally, the bacteria is already there so it’s gonna grow. If you keep the milk cold and don’t let it get above that 40-degree mark then you’re going to save the shelf life on the milk by quite a few days.”

Glover said his milk can last more than a month, but the creamery marks its product’s expiration dates short by five days.

Milk should be stored in the lowest, back part of the refrigerator where it’s coldest. Glover said it’s wise to return milk to the refrigerator immediately after pouring to prevent it from warming.

McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this report.