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What Does the Food Date on the Package Really Mean?

Posted by Joan Salge Blake  October 2, 2012 12:59 PM

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Source:  Nutrition and You
We all have played the Food Dating Game. It's when you find that a package of raw chicken breasts in the back of the refrigerator and the date has expired.  Thus, the game begins.  Should I cook it and eat it? Should I toss it? Will I get sick if I eat it?

Keep in mind that the date on the food package does not refer to food safety, but to the quality of the food. In other words, this is the date by which you should consume the product in order to enjoy it at its best quality. According to the FDA, whenever you see a date on the label, there must be a phrase next to the date that tells you how to interpret it.

Of course, any food that has spoiled and gives off an off odor or appearance, regardless of the date, should be discarded as the quality as deteriorated.

Now, the big question:  Suppose you find a package of raw chicken buried in your refrigerator and the “Best Used By” expired yesterday, is it still safeto eat?  This is a tricky question because if the food has been mishandled, such as left at room temperature for over two hours before refrigerating, it could increase your risk of foodborne illness whether or not the date has expired. 

However, if the food has been handled properly and kept in the refrigerator at 40 °F or below, it should be safe, wholesome and of good quality, according to the FDA.   In this situation, follow these guidelines from the FDA for uncooked and cooked perishable items:  

Note:  If product has a "use-by" date, follow that date. If product has a "sell-by" date or no date, cook or freeze the product by the times on the above charts.  Source:  FDA

Always remember:  When in doubt, toss it out!

Follow Joan on Twitter at: joansalgeblake
Originally published on the blog Nutrition and You!.
This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Joan Salge Blake, MS, RD, LDN, is a clinical associate professor and registered dietitian at Boston University in the Nutrition Program. Joan is the author of Nutrition &You, 2nd Edition, More »

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