It happens more often than I care to admit: I buy a pint of heavy cream for a meal I have planned, I put it in the fridge, things get crazy and my meal plan goes out the window and a few weeks later I find a carton of forgotten cream with a “Sell By” date that has come and gone. What to do? Often I’ll smell it and it smells fine. But is it safe to eat? I’ll be the first to admit that I really don’t know that much about the shelf-life of various foods, nor do I have any idea what would happen if I served up a meal prepared with a food that was past its prime.
But then, what does “past its prime” mean, anyway. If that carton of cream is a few weeks old, could it still be “good” even if it’s not “great”? Should I trust the date and toss it, or trust my nose and use it?
In the face of the realization that consumers as a whole are just as ignorant/uninformed about the “Sell By” and “Use By” and “Best By” dates stamped on our food packages as I am specifically — and that massive amounts of food are going to waste because of it the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic is pushing for better communication between food companies and consumers about what these freshness dates all mean.
Hint: they don’t all mean the same thing, nor do they really give an indication of whether or not food has gone bad. “Sell By” dates are strictly for the grocery store’s use in making sure they have the freshest products out for purchase. But “Use By” and “Best By” dates also have a lot of leeway to them. Generally speaking, they are about food quality and not food safety. So while there might be a slight decline in the quality of food maybe it loses its color a bit, or it tastes a bit blander it can still be perfectly safe to eat. To help make sense of “Sell By” and “Use By” and safety versus quality, Time.com put together a cheat sheet of common foods and how long they are good for. Check it out here.
I do feel bad about how much food I purchase that ends up in the trash before we get around to eating it. It is always with regret that I toss the decaying zucchini into the garbage can or send the remnants of another partially-used tub of sour cream down the drain. But now that I know the basics of “Sell By” and “Best By” dates, I’ll know to use my senses to determine food safety rather than the date stamp. That’s not what it’s there for, after all.
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