Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Is it Still Good to Eat?

Many people call asking about specific foods and whether they are still safe to consume. One way to judge is by checking the food product dating. Understanding the types of dates can help you make a decision. The following terms may appear on products you buy: “Sell by” date – indicates how long the store should display the product. Buy foods before this date has passed. The food may still be good to eat at home. Milk, for example, will usually still be good for at least a week beyond that date if properly refrigerated. “Best if used by” – this indicates when the quality and freshness is best. Foods are safe to purchase and consume after this date. “Use by” date – the manufacturer recommends consuming by this date for best quality. It is not a food safety date, but would be best used by this date. “Expiration date”-- If you haven't used the product by this date, toss it out. “Coded dates” – these packing numbers are used by stores to allow them to rotate stock and respond to recalls. Each manufacturer determines their own system of coding. Some use letters of the alphabet to indicate months, some use the Julian calendar for days of the year. Unless you know the coding system, trying to figure out when a product was packaged can be like trying to solve a Chinese puzzle. Products that are past their expiration date may still be safe to eat. A local food bank calls the companies and asks them how far past the expiration date their food is safe to eat. Brand-name manufacturers often have a toll-free number on the package, which makes it convenient and cost-free to call and ask how to decode the packing number or how long it is safe to eat. For in-depth information on figuring out code dating and how to contact manufacturer’s, go to http://lancaster.unl.edu/food/ftjan05.htm A general guideline for canned goods is: Low-acid canned goods like canned meats, poultry, stew, soups (except tomato) and most vegetables are best used within 2-5 years. High-acid canned goods like fruit, tomato products, sauerkraut or pickled products are suggested to be used within 12-18 months. Never use baby food or formula that is past the expiration date. Babies and infants are especially vulnerable to food-borne illness because their immune systems are not fully developed. Keep in mind that foods can go bad before their expiration date if not stored properly and protected from contamination. Also, some specially packaged foods like vacuum-sealed products have one date listed for “use by” that may be weeks or months in the future, but, once opened, are suggested to be consumed within a few days to a week. Shelf-stable packaged goods that contain foods with natural or added oils can become rancid, especially if stored in above-average temperatures for a period of time. Check crackers, whole grain products, nuts, seeds and snack foods that contain fat periodically by smelling the contents. If rancid, they will have an off-odor and usually a bitter taste. Discard these products. To minimize spoilage or loss of quality of food products before they are eaten, follow these guidelines: Always store new product behind older goods so foods are rotated and used before they deteriorate. Use a marker to date products that have no other dating information on them. Only buy economy sizes of products you can use up while still of good quality.

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