“Best By…” Date on Foods – With Empty Store Shelves, Can I Eat Old Food?

“Best By…” Date on Foods – With Empty Store Shelves, Can I Eat Old Food?

Laura L. Klure | Contributor

In this difficult Coronavirus episode, there are times when some foods are not readily available in a store.  We may also be concerned that some particular foods might have been touched by an infected person.

With such problems, people may be more likely to consider eating OLD foods that they had stored somewhere. But if we carefully examine foods, we may notice that the container is stamped with something that says the food is “best by” or “best used by” a particular date.  Some items may instead say “sell by.” What do these dates mean? 

One erroneous conclusion some might draw is that the food is not SAFE to eat after that “best by” date.  According to the Federal Government (US Department of Agriculture), food safety is not the meaning of “best by” dates — TASTE is largely what is involved. If you keep something way beyond the “best by” date, it may not taste good.

Many people, believing that the food is no longer safe, discard items that have recently passed the “best by” date.  This unfortunately means that a lot of food is being wasted that would still be edible.   Those foods should have been smelled and tasted, and eaten if they were still tasting good.

Does the Federal Government require all foods to have such a date on them? NO. California has some rules that are stricter than rules in some other states, for example regarding the sale of milk products. Milk, even when refrigerated, can decay if not used within a week after purchase. The “sell by” date on products in California and some other states requires the stores to remove them if that date has passed. Anything with a “sell by” date should be used fairly soon after it was bought. 

But with regard to canned and frozen foods, is it OK to eat them after the “best by” date? Yes, that’s OK, if the foods have not been treated badly. If the cans were safe in a controlled cupboard, or if the frozen foods were kept in a functional freezer, then they are still OK to eat for some time after the given date.

But what foods might NOT be safe to eat? Any foods that have been openly exposed for a significant amount of time, such as on a patio or at a picnic, could be dangerous. Those foods might have been attacked by insects, or had things dropping on them, or had people reaching into them. Such foods may have been contaminated, perhaps with bacteria. It’s important to notice these bad events, and they negate the “best by” date.

Temperature difficulties can also negate “best by.” If frozen items are not kept cold enough, they can decay. Even canned foods can be damaged if they are stored in a really hot place. Fresh foods that were not refrigerated, such as meat and vegetables, can become stale before their indicated usage date. Minor temperature difficulties generally just impact taste, but serious temperature deviations can cause more harm.

Containers for medications, vitamins, and nutritional supplements sometimes are marked with an expiration date (“exp.”), or a “discard” date. These notations indicate more important dates for usage to be finished, since the chemicals may not be as effective after such a date.

A lot of information about such dates can be found online. If you feel you need more details, search for “food safety date,” “expiration date,” or use words like “best by date.” Paying attention to governmental sites is particularly good, such as the Federal USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, at www.fsis.usda.gov., or the US Food & Drug Administration, at www.fda.gov

So, can we summarize any good advice? We hope you have all the healthy foods you want during this Coronavirus pandemic. Yes, we all should pay attention to “best by” dates on foods, but we should not waste a lot of foods that are not very old and still taste good.

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