We all have them: those canned goods hiding in the dark recesses of our kitchen cabinets. Remember that can of spinach that you bought two years ago? It’s still there. Or what about that almost-empty bottle of marinade that has been sitting in the door of your refrigerator since last summer? Did you ever get around to making that teriyaki chicken like you said you would?
The marinade and canned goods, among other food products, can quickly add to the clutter of our cabinets and refrigerators. Our well-intentioned efforts to get the most out of our purchases sometimes prevent us from throwing items away long after they have no use or have gone bad. Or, if you are like me, you delay throwing out old items until you need to make room for newer or fresher products. Regardless of the reason for keeping products, it is important to take notice of dates on food labels.
Unfortunately, since the labeling dates are guidelines that are not federally mandated—only infant formula and some baby foods are required by federal law to show expiration dates—that task is not as easy as it seems. A variety of food labeling options abound, including some of the following commonly used terms:
- Sell by – How long a product should be displayed for sale. Buy before the sell by date.
- Best if used by (or before) – A recommendation regarding quality and freshness, not a purchase or safety date.
- Born on – A date to denote quality or freshness, not a safety date.
- Guaranteed fresh – A date referring to quality or freshness.
- Use by – The final date recommended by the manufacturer for freshness and quality.
- Pack/Closed/Coding dates – Numbers used by the manufacturer.
Confusing, right? It can be. So what can you do to keep track of food labeling?
The food service industry uses a food rotation principle known as First In, First Out or FIFO to prevent food waste and reduce the occurrence of foodborne illness. FIFO practices can easily be used in homes by keeping older products near the front of the cabinet or refrigerator so that they will be used first. FIFO is especially helpful when there are multiple items of the same product. Additionally, adhering to specific storage times of common food items can further aid in maintaining freshness and quality.
If you have specific questions regarding the safety of a product, it is best to contact the manufacturer directly. Alternatively, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is a good resource for information about food safety, including alerts, recalls, and safe-handling of products. If all else fails, it is best to go with your gut instinct regarding food. At times, it can be your best guide.