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Is Outdated Food Still Edible?

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Did you see the recent news story about the grocery store in Boston that is selling only outdated products?  Yes, it’s true.  Doug Rauch, the man behind the very successful Trader Joe’s retail chain is opening new stores that will sell “outdated products” at a much lower price.  How can he do this?  Simple- the dates on most foods are just suggestions because the food doesn’t really go bad, it just isn’t at its peak freshness. Some of those foods will be tortilla chips, yogurt, eggs, milk and chocolate – which have much longer lives than the dates on the packages.

Have you ever eaten something past its “expiration date” and thought the food was still fine? On the other side, have you ever thrown something out without checking its freshness first because of the date on the side? Food waste in the United States is out of control. It is estimated that 40% of all the food that is discarded in this country is due to the date stamped to the side of the container, even if the food is still perfectly good. Researchers have been looking into this whole food-waste problem and realizing there is a huge confusion issue on the idea behind dates on packaging. The findings clearly show that much of the food we waste in this country is still very much edible.

Some interesting facts about Food Dates:

  • Food Can Be Sold After Date Expires – Stores are not legally required to remove food from the shelf once the expiration date has passed. The expiration dates are strictly “advisory” in nature and are left entirely to the discretion of the manufacturer, thus not truly indicative of an items true shelf life
  • Food Dates Are Not Required By Law – With the exception of infant formula and baby food, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require food companies to place dates on their food products. The only requirement is that the food is wholesome and fit for consumption.
  • Laws Vary By State – States have varying food dating laws. For example, many states require that milk and other perishables be sold before the expiration date, while others do not.
  • The FDA allows manufacturers to stamp their product with a date in order to help the seller determine how long to keep the product on display and to help the purchaser use the product when it is of best quality. The date is in no way intended to be a food safety date.

Most supermarkets, including Festival Foods, have a policy of discarding outdated products as a service to our guests.  However, much of this food is still good so we are looking at new labeling practices to curb some of this waste.  In our deli department you will see a “sell-by” date on our packaging which means that is the last day to have it on our shelf but does not mean the product has gone bad.  In most cases, dates on products are guidelines for the retailer, not for the consumer.

How are you supposed to know if a product is safe to eat beyond the date?  In many cases, the old-fashioned smell and taste test works.  If it doesn’t obviously look, smell, or taste bad it’s probably ok.  However, another great resource is the manufacturer’s website.  I was recently checking on outdated yogurt and found this useful information: Like a lot of other dairy products, yogurt has a sell by date which is simply the last date until which a manufacturer will vouch for a product’s quality, not its safety. All yogurt manufacturers guarantee their product quality for 7 days beyond the printed sell by date, but do not state a timeframe for safety (although they all agree yogurt can be eaten well beyond the 7 days). Because of this distinction, you may safely eat yogurt even after its printed date.   In the case of the recent Chobani recall, most of that product still had a good expiration date but obviously looked and smelled bad.  However, many consumers became ill from eating it because they went strictly by the date on the package.

We also receive many inquiries about eggs, perhaps the food that is most often thrown out while still edible. The Egg Safety Center notes that the dates you see on egg cartons are not food safety dates. They are most commonly used as a guide for stores to know how long they can sell the eggs.

Eggs in the shell will maintain their best quality for about 3 to 5 weeks after the date you bought them assuming continuous refrigeration. Your eggs will still be perfectly safe to use provided they’re not cracked or otherwise damaged.

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I’m not saying if your cheese is covered in mold that you should use it in your sandwich, please use common sense and when you are in doubt, throw it out.  BUT- many items, especially canned and packaged, are perfectly fine to use for a long time after the freshness date has passed.

Food safety experts, manufacturers, and government agencies are working on a standardized system that will pinpoint when food spoils and other options include tweaking the labels to be more accurate or completely abandoning the use of dates on food that doesn’t go bad.   In the meantime, we will do our best to ensure that the food we sell in our stores is safe and within the current guidelines.

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5 comments to Is Outdated Food Still Edible?

  • avatar Troy

    If this is true, could Festival start selling to consumers or restaurants at discounted pricing?

  • Troy there are some grocery stores out on the East Coast that have all the permits to sell out dated, close dated, bruised and other items. Currently we donate to these type of items to food pantry’s in the communities where we have stores located. I am not sure what will happen in the future.

  • avatar Molly

    Festival gives us out dated food at both the Salvation Army, and at St. Joe’s, Food Pantries. I use both. I look forward to the quality and the variety of their donations. Fresh stuff.
    At Walgreen’s, where I once worked, the powdered and jarred baby food was gone over regularly. This food simply got pitched if out dated. They were very good about that.

  • avatar M. Henthorne

    I have an unopened carton of egg whites with an outdate of Dec. 13. Is it safe to use the contents 2 weeks later?

  • Egg whites should be pasteurized. I would double check to see if they are in fact pasteurized and do a sensory inspection. BUT, when in doubt throw it out.

    If the product looked and smelled fine, I would personally use it without worries.

    Thank you,
    Jake Parr

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