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April 20th, 2009
01:51 PM ET

What’s the truth behind all those food expiration labels?

By Karen Denice
CNN Medical Senior Producer

What does the “Sell-by” date really mean?

Is the sell by date really a “consume-by” date? Everyone seems to have an opinion, but what are the facts? I was raised to never waste food. My grandfather used to cut the mold off my bread and hand it back to me. So, I have a rather liberal view of food safety – more of a sniffer than a by-the-book, go-by-the-date kind of gal.

But recently I was having friends over for dinner and wondered if I could be putting them at risk. The meat I was using had only a sell-by date and had been frozen every minute since then. Granted that sell-by date was in September and I was cooking for them in March. Don’t flinch!

For the dinner I used my personal sniff, color and texture test and decided it looked good, but that just made me wonder what do those dates on packages really mean? So I did some research.

Surprisingly food dating is not generally required by the federal government although 20 states do require it. There are multiple “dates” that may end up on your food; the one in question for me was the purchase or sell-by date. These dates are not an expiration date, but they do reflect when the food is at its highest quality. Depending on the food, it will stay good anywhere from one to two days [poultry] to five weeks [eggs] after the sell-by date if handled properly. (Check out this chart)  

There are also “Best if used by” or “Use-by” date stamps. These sound like your food might go bad, but again the U.S. Department of Agriculture says this refers only to the quality of the food – not safety.

If you freeze food the dates and advice gets murkier. Experts say freezing prevents the germs that cause food to spoil, but that doesn’t mean you’ll like the taste when it’s defrosted. Anything from freezer burn to how long it was frozen and the quality of the food will impact how good, or not good, it will taste.

Lucky for me, my friends enjoyed the meal and as it turns out it was unlikely they would have gotten sick anyway.

So are you a sniffer or a by-the-date person? Have you ever gotten sick taking a risk?

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