Is a Food’s “Best Before” Date Technically an Expiration Date?

It's annoying to realize your milk has passed its use-by date, but even more annoying would be getting sick from drinking 2 percent that's a few days past the pull date. But can you? What about eggs that have passed their "best before" date? It's a question as old as, well, pull dates.

According to a 2013 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, most food is safe to eat after the expiration date. This is because "sell by," "use by," and "best before" dates actually refer to the food’s peak freshness, not the threshold beyond which it's unsafe. (The only exception is infant formula, which loses the strength of its nutrients over time.)

The thing is, many consumers don’t know what the dates refer to, and just to be safe, they pour perfectly good milk down the drain after it has "expired." The confusion comes from a lack of federal regulations for date labeling, which is why there are so many different phrases for peak-freshness dates in the first place. The dates only exist to protect a food’s reputation, but they result in as much as 40 percent of the American food supply being thrown away each year, at an annual cost of $165 billion. John Ruff, past president of the Institute of Food Technologists, notes that in over 40 years, none of the food poisoning outbreaks or recalls has been caused by food past its shelf date. You can actually eat most foods past their date without any noticeable change in taste.

Fresh eggs, for example, stay good three to five weeks after the date on the carton. Canned foods will stay fresh up to a year, but since the cans are vacuum sealed to prevent the growth of bacteria, some researchers have found that canned food can still be safe to eat for several years past the peak-fresh date. Frozen meat and poultry will stay safe to eat up to a year.

Of course, when you go to cook that ground pork you froze 10 months ago, or eat a chocolate bar past the "best before" date, the taste and texture might be less than perfect, but chances are you won't get sick from eating it. If you're still confused, check out the Food Marketing Institute’s Food Keeper application. It's a database listing how long different foods can safely be stored. Just type a food into the search bar, and you’ll see how long that food can be kept in the fridge or freezer safely.

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