A few years ago I picked up a rather eye-opening pamphlet about food quality and shelf life at my local supermarket. I was shocked to learn that I was wasting a ton of money by throwing away food and condiments that were still perfectly good to eat.

Apparently, I wasn't alone. According to a recent Natural Resources Defense Council report, American households throw out approximately 25 percent of the food and beverages they buy. A lot of this waste is due to confusion about the real meaning of expiration dates and ignorance of the true shelf life of products, resulting in the proverbial "when in doubt, throw it out" mindset.

The USDA states that with the exception of infant formula, product dating is not generally required by federal regulations. Expiration dates are actually set by the manufacturer and usually refer to peak quality and not food safety, so a product isn't necessarily unsafe after the date.

Expiration Dates

Types of Dates:

1. "Sell by" lets the store know how long to display products for sale. Product should be purchased prior to this date. "Sell by" is typically found on perishables like meat or poultry.
2. "Best if used by" is a recommendation for best quality or flavor, not safety.
3. "Use by" indicates when a product will start deteriorating in quality and flavor as determined by the manufacturer.

Check expiration dates before putting items in your cart to avoid going home with something that's already past its prime. Supermarkets rotate fresher items to the rear, so I always reach to the back of the refrigerated cases for the freshest milk, cheese, yogurt, etc.

Expiration dates are a recommendation for unopened cans, jars, bottles, or packages. Once opened, the date is no longer valid in most cases, and shelf life has to be estimated from that point forward.

Some products specifically say "once opened, use within 7 days." Always follow such product instructions.

Stop Throwing Good Food Away

Websites such as StillTasty or ShelfLifeAdvice can give you valuable information on the shelf life of a variety of foods and condiments.

Shelf life recommendations can often be found at the website of the product's manufacturer.

Know exactly when you opened the various food products in your fridge or pantry in order to reap the full benefit of shelf life timetables. My favorite waste-less tactic is a small magnetic bin on my refrigerator containing a pen and a pack of small self-stick labels. Now, when I open a package or jar of something, I write the date it was opened on a label and affix it to the product.

Shelf Life of Common Products After Opening

Shelf life websites glean their data from a variety of sources such as the FDA, USDA, universities, and food manufacturers, so estimates may vary somewhat depending on the source.

  • Bacon:  1 week
  • Barbeque Sauce:  6 – 9 months
  • Bread Crumbs:  6 months
  • Cheddar Cheese (block):  3 – 4 weeks
  • Cottage Cheese:  2 weeks
  • Eggs (raw in shell):  3 – 5 weeks
  • Half and Half:  7 – 10 days or by expiration date, whichever comes first
  • Hot Dogs:  7 days
  • Milk:  1 week
  • Peanut Butter:  2 – 3 months in the pantry, 6 months refrigerated
  • Salad Dressing:  6 – 9 months

Products That'll Outlast You

Cornstarch, distilled white vinegar, granulated sugar, hard liquor, honey, salt and uncooked white rice all keep indefinitely.

Food Safety

  • Shelf life recommendations are guidelines based on proper handling and storage.  Mishandling food — such as leaving food out of refrigeration for too long — invalidates the recommendations.
  • No expiration date guarantees food safety prior to the date, just as it doesn't indicate a lack thereof after the date.
  • Most foodborne illness is not from eating food that's past the expiration date. It's caused by some form of mishandling that resulted in contamination, and this can occur before or after the date expires.
  • Spoilage bacteria that results in slimy, discolored or foul smelling/tasting food are what make food unpalatable. Odorless, colorless, and tasteless pathogenic bacteria are the ones that make you sick. The fact that growth of spoilage bacteria usually precedes the growth of pathogenic bacteria is a valuable warning sign to discard such food before it actually does become dangerous to eat.
  • Raw meat and poultry, raw eggs, unpasteurized milk and raw shellfish are the foods most likely to become contaminated according to the Centers for Disease Control.

This is a guest post by Deidre from Dania Beach, FL
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The Truth About Expiration Dates