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VERIFY: Yes, in general, you can eat food past the 'best if used by' date

Most of the dates printed on food indicate when the food is at peak quality, not how long the food is still safe to eat.

WASHINGTON — QUESTION:

If food is past the date labeled on food? Is it still safe to eat? If so, for how long?

ANSWER:

Most dates printed on packages indicate when the food is at its best quality, things like taste, aroma and texture. If you're using proper storage, the food is likely still wholesome to eat.

SOURCES:

U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service- "Food Product Dating

Abby Snyder- Associate Professor of Microbial Food Safety- Cornell University 

PROCESS:

Nearly 30 percent of the food supply is lost or wasted at the retail and consumer level, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. One reason consumers are chucking good food in the trash, is confusion over dates on the packaging label, the agency said.   

Verify viewer Bruce Whitman from southern Maryland asked the verify team to get clarity on how expiration dates should be followed.

"My question has to do with all the extra business at the food pantries, God bless them for stepping up," Whitman said. "But I'm wondering if the food is past its expiration date, is it still safe to eat? And if it is, how far past the expiration is it safe?"

Our Verify researchers turned to the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, and an assistant professor of microbial food safety at Cornell University for answers.

Our experts say that in general most date labels on food tell consumers when the food is at peak quality — think taste, smell or texture — and that the dates don’t indicate the safety of a product.

“Best if used by” and "Best By" indicates when a product has the best flavor or quality.

"Use By" is the last date recommended for peak quality.

Sell By” tells the store how long to keep an item on the shelf, it's not a safety date.

In fact, the USDA says none of those labels are dealing with food safety, with one exception, baby formula, which should be consumed by "Use By" date.

"Most of the printed 'dates' on foods denote when the product will be at best quality and are not intended to indicate the safety of the product," a USDA spokesperson told WUSA9. "Product dates are also relevant for an unopened product, and once the product is opened, the quality limits will vary. Some products may last past the package date once opened, and others may deteriorate more quickly."

Abby Snyder, a specialist in food spoilage, says the shelf-life of food really depends on what you’re eating.

“Shelf stable foods in your pantry like canned foods or dry goods, are safe to eat after their best before date listed," Snyder said. “Fresh cut produce like melon, soft cheeses, lunch meat, they often bear that use by date that should be followed. In those cases, products can potentially support the growth of bacterial pathogens, especially in products considered ready to eat.”

In terms of how long past the date a food will stay fresh, the USDA says that depends on the type of food and how it's stores. Conditions like temperature and moisture play a role in bacteria growth.

Spoiled food will have an off odor, flavor or texture, and if you notice this, don’t eat it.

So we can Verify, in general its OK to go past, those “best if used by” and “sell by” labels. Those labels indicate tastiness and display dates, not safety.

The USDA has an app and website called Food Keeper, where you can get product-specific tips on shelf-life and how long to keep food in the fridge.

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