Eating a bowl of one’s favorite cereal should be an enjoyable occasion, be it the first thing we have in the morning for breakfast or as a tasty, healthier alternative snack to butter-drenched popcorn while watching a movie. For those of us who have settled in and taken the first bite, only to be greeted with a more sour than sweet experience, that little printed date we find on many of the foods in our kitchens has become very important indeed!
The question, of course, is what exactly do these dates mean? And why is it that some foods are spoiled after this date, while others appear to be (and taste) just fine? Is this really an expiration date?
The fact of the matter is, there are a number of dates manufacturers can place upon their products, and – aside from infant formula and baby food – there are no federal requirements for food producers to put dates on their products. Surprising? We thought so, too! While there is no universal guide for food labeling in the U.S., according the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, or FSIS, approximately 20 states do require some sort of dating guide on foods sold in their jurisdiction. Still, there are some areas where no dating is required. How, then, can we be sure that what we are eating is still good to consume – let alone questioning its safety?
The FSIS offers detailed descriptions on their website, and we’ve provided some of their basic dating codes here for you to keep as a quick guide:
Sell-by: This is for the grocery store, and tells them how long they can keep a product on their shelves.
Best-by/before: Recommends the peak time for a food, but is not intended to be used as a safety guide
Use-by: The last date before a food’s quality begins to diminish; is determined by the manufacturer
Closed/coded dating: more often found on shelf-stable products, and used by the manufacturer for packing purposes
When doubting a date on a product, or if product doesn’t have a date at all, using our senses is a keen way to determine if a food is past its prime to the point it could cause illness. Here are a few things for families to keep in mind:
Eyes: Does it look normal? Some foods and drinks, like dairy products, are generally uniform in color. Sometimes it’s easy to tell: i.e., if a food has mold on it or is very soft (mushy), with substantial discoloration, it’s best to toss it. Milk should not curdle, but it’s important to note if it is homogenized or non-homogenized. Non-homogenized milk will experience some separation and needs to be shaken to create the smooth consistency many of us have come to expect. For instance, many of our school partners receive milk from Ronnybrook, which is non-homogenized. You can read more information about Ronnybrook and their products by visiting them here.
Nose: Does it smell sour? This indicates the presence of bacteria. If a food has a pungent odor, it’s best to get rid of it.
Taste: We don’t recommend children get in on this part of the “is it good?” assessment, but parents and teachers can of course use their own discretion when choosing to perform a taste-test. If you do a quick bite or drink, try not to swallow, especially if it is found to be sour. Again, this indicates the presence of bacteria that shouldn’t be there!
As always, use your best judgment - and if ever in doubt, you can always opt to not use it, or call the manufacturer to ask for guidance. We called Ronnybrook to ask them to specify what the dates on their half-gallon milks mean; a representative confirmed it is a solid expiration date and should be thrown out once past that time.
Remember, food is meant to be enjoyed! Food labeling and dating is not designed to intimidate or worry us, but to offer reassurance, empowering us to make informed choices about what we eat and feed our families. Knowing how to interpret the information that has been provided on food packaging and labels can give us peace of mind, and fuel conversations with our young ones to help them develop into curious, healthy eaters for the rest of their lives.