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Meeting COVID-19 challenges: Understand dates on food labels before discarding

By ThisIsReno
Published: Last Updated on

Submitted By Stanley T. Omaye, University of Nevada, Reno 

With the COVID-19 pandemic presenting major challenges to people living in Nevada, and the world, University of Nevada, Reno, provides this information to help our citizens meet these challenges.

Amid COVID-19, many people are stocking up on various items, including food. Yet, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that as much as 30 percent of the food supply is lost or wasted after it reaches stores or homes. Frequently, this is due to consumers disposing of food because of “the date” that appears on it.  

However, the dates placed on food items differ significantly in meaning. Labels such as “best if used by,” “sell by,” “use by” and “freeze by” are all dates determined by food manufacturers. These labels are the manufacturers’ best guess as to when there is a loss in food quality, and do not indicate a loss in food safety. Rather, such labels indicate how long a food maker will warranty their product to still be at peak quality for enjoyment. 

Common phrases used by manufacturers in their food labels are:  

  • “Best-if-used-by/before” date indicates when a product will be of the best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • “Sell-by” date indicates to the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date.
  • “Use-by” date indicates the last date recommended for consumption of the product for peak quality. It is not a safety date, except when used on infant formula. (Federal regulations require a “Use-by” date on the product label of infant formula under inspection of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Do not buy or use baby formula after its “Use-by” date).
  • “Freeze-by” date indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

 So, how do you know how long you can keep and consume various foods, depending upon how they are labeled? It can be confusing, but here is some general guidance: 

After eggs are purchased, they should be refrigerated in their original carton and placed in the coldest part of the refrigerator. Storing eggs in the refrigerator door is not recommended due to the loss of coolness from the repeated opening of the door. Keeping eggs at refrigerator temperatures (below 40 F) will slow the progression of bacteria and inhibit them from penetrating the shell. Generally, eggs will be safe for three to five weeks after purchase at refrigerator temperatures. However, they will lose quality over time.  

Milk, Cream, Yogurt
Milk and cream are safe in the refrigerator (34 F to 40 F) for seven days after opening or the date on the container, yogurt for two weeks, and sour cream for up to three weeks.   

Soft cheeses (cottage cheese, ricotta or brie) are good for one week in the refrigerator. Hard cheeses (cheddar, Swiss and parmesan) can last up to six months refrigerated in an un-open package, and up to four weeks after opening. Processed cheese slices in the refrigerator last for two months. 

Fresh/Raw Meats 
“Sell-by” date tells the retailer how long to display the merchandise for sale. You should purchase the product before the date expires. “Best-if-used-by” date is the date by which the product should be used for best flavor and quality. “Use-by” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product for peak quality. After such a date, the consumer should not purchase the product. See https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/food-labeling/food-product-dating/food-product-dating or https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/programs-and-services/contact-centers/usda-meat-and-poultry-hotline/usda-meat-and-poultry-hotline

Packaged/Processed Meats
Processed meats (hot dogs, luncheon meats, sausages) will last two weeks after purchase in the refrigerator unopened, and three to five days after opening. In the freezer, they will last one to two months.   

Canned/Boxed Goods
As long as they are placed in cool, dry places, canned and boxed goods are safe indefinitely. Make sure there are no dents, swelling or rust, which can be signs of botulism. Home-canned foods should be used within one year. Dates on canned and packaged foods reflect how long they will last before starting to lose quality.   

Frozen Goods (pizzas, meals, etc.)
In general, frozen food will last for three months in the home freezer before beginning to acquire freezer burn (becomes desiccated and limp). This is true for raw meats, cooked meats, prepared foods, bread or anything you might freeze. You can cook foods with freezer burn, but they will lack good flavor or texture. You can vacuum seal items to prevent freezer burn. There is an excellent chart published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, https://www.fda.gov/media/74435/download, that provides information on how long various foods maintain quality when frozen, and when refrigerated.

Stanley T. Omaye is a nutrition professor at the University of Nevada, Reno’s College of Agriculture, Biotechnology & Natural Resources.