Basics - Planning & Organizing

Food Safety


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Shelf Life of Food in Your Pantry

Have you been taught if a can of food is bulging then it is bad and that is all you know about the safety and quality of food on your shelf? If your milk in your fridge has passed the expiration date do you still drink it until it tastes bad?

Do you know if the food on your shelves is still edible? Dates on the packages offer some clues, but these can be confusing because the United States doesn't have a uniform system of food dating. Product dating isn't federally required, except for infant formula and some baby food, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture fact sheet. Also, stores aren't legally required to remove food once a "sell by" date has passed. It is up to us to be informed and make our own decision.

If there is a shelf-life date on a package, trust it. However, keep in mind that there's a great variation with type of food, the temperature where it was stored, the original quality of the food, the amount of oxygen present and other factors, according to Oscar Pike, the department chairman of nutrition, dietetics and food science at Brigham Young University in Provo Utah, who has studied the shelf life of food. We as consumers would like it to be more consistent, but it just isn't.

Valerie Phillips of the Deseret Morning News gives the following information on food labeling and packaging. Here are the dates you are likely to find on your package and what they mean, according to the USDA:
• "Sell by" tells the store how long to display the product for sale. For best quality, people should buy the product before this date expires, but it doesn't necessarily mean the product is bad once it reaches that date.
• "Best if used by (or before)" is recommended by the manufacturer for best flavor or quality. This is not a safety date, according to the USDA. If the date says March 15, 2008 and today is March 16, that doesn't automatically mean you have to toss it. The products, in general, are still safe to eat, but some consumers may detect changes in product flavor, color, taste or texture.
• "Use by" is the last date recommended to use the product, such as "Do not use after March 15, 2008." The date has been determined by the manufacturer.
• "Closed" or coded dates are packing numbers or dates, so that manufactures know when and where the product was produced. This is helpful in the event of a recall. The product may be stamped with a date preceded by the letters "MFG." This tells you the date it was packed. You may have bought the product a month ago, but this date could tell you that it has been sitting in a warehouse or on a store shelf for several months.

The manufacturer's dates on packages and canned goods are conservative and based more on quality than safety, said Dr. Frost Steele, a BYU food science professor. "The quality deteriorates much sooner than safety will." Toss out any cans or jars that are bulging, heavily dented, cracked, have broken seals, loose lids or "any compromise with the packaging," Steele said. It is best to rotate food on a first-in, first out basis.

About the Author

Marilyn Bohn's Bio
Marilyn is a creative organizer who has been organizing for over 20 years. She is a member of the National Association of Professional Organizers and is working towards becoming a Certified Professional Organizer. Professionally she has been organizing homes and offices for over two years. She holds a bachelors degree in Social Work. She has reared five daughters and currently lives in Utah.

Go to her website where you can find free organizing tips and interesting blogs and helpful articles on organizing.