Feds Ask Food-Makers: Can We Eat This, or What?

'Best by,' 'sell by' and other terms leave some of us confused
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jun 8, 2019 5:30 PM CDT
Feds Press for Clarity: What Does 'Sell by' Mean?
This file photo shows the "sell by" date for a jug of milk in New York.   (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

If milk is a few days past its "Sell By" date, is it safe to drink? US regulators are urging food-makers to be more consistent with labeling terms like "Best By" and "Enjoy By" that cause confusion, the AP reports. By clarifying the meaning of such dates, they are trying to prevent people from prematurely tossing products and to reduce the mountains of food that goes to waste each year. Even if you rely more on sight and smell to size up foods, you might be surprised by the risks and practices around food spoilage. Among the issues:

  • The terms: Phrases like "Best By", "Enjoy By," and "Fresh Through" generally indicate when a food's quality would decline—not when it becomes unsafe to eat. To help make that clearer, the US Food and Drug Administration recently recommended companies stick with "Best If Used By."
  • The dates: It's difficult for manufacturers to pinpoint how long foods will stay good, given variables like how long they sit on loading docks and how they're stored in people's homes. Milk should be good for at least a few days after its "Sell By" date, while foods like fresh meat and dairy are more vulnerable to spoilage in part because their moisture allows the small amounts of bacteria to multiply more quickly.
  • Should I worry? Your tolerance for spoilage likely varies depending on the food. Few would keep pouring chunky milk over cereal, but many might overlook a spot of mold on bread. Food safety experts generally recommend throwing out food at the first signs of spoilage.
  • Preventing spoilage: Canning in a sealed, sterile container is a way to preserve foods for years, while freezing can also stop the clock on spoilage. But even in those cases, foods can deteriorate in quality depending on factors such as acidity and how tightly the package is sealed.
(More food safety stories.)

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