The golden rule of any establishment that sells products where freshness is “FIFO”. This acronym, which stands for “First In First Out”, should be paramount when it comes to cooking. You’ll want to use the products first in the fridge, cabinet, or the like before you any other products; it’s common sense. You don’t purchase and use a new bottle of ketchup if you already have one in the fridge, do you? Only once that ketchup bottle says “best by”, “use by”, or “sell by” should you definitely throw it out.
A new report from Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council states that Americans are tossing food that may be okay to eat, CNN and Time report. Particularly, their study finds that the various “expiration” dates may mean different things, but consumer perceive them the same, and some food may be perfectly fine days, weeks, or even months after this date, even if it doesn’t look that great. Their studies show that even something as temperamental and cautious as eggs may be good for three to five weeks after a “sell by” date on the packaging.
The United States Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration have regulatory power over the misbranding of products, but don’t regulate the use of dates. Across the country, food dating rules vary at a state level.
Theoretically, “Best By” and “Use By” are to indicate peak freshness, while “Sell By” is really intended for manufacturers and retailers to ensure proper turnover of the products.
Professor of Food Science and Engineering Ted Labuza at the University of Minnesota says, according to The Huffington Post, that 80% of dates on packaging are estimates, and that dates are a misnomer on the freshness and safeness of food. Not all food consumed before a date is good to eat, and not all food after a date is bad to eat; we should be paying more attention to how food is stored than dates seems to be the general consensus.
The study suggests that “Sell By” dates should not be seen by consumers, packages should include more thorough guidelines on how to keep food safe, and that a pair of expiration dates, one for quality and one for safety, would clear things up.
When it comes to the kitchen, keeping products appropriately dated is key. One tip that can help is to make sure you’re using date stickers of some form. When you receive product, label and date it with appropriate information: the day it was received, the day the packaging says it expires (or is “best by”, “use by”, etc.). Having a master list of inventoried items with dates they’re good for once opened or prepared (such as “Fresh Baked Cookies- Good For 2 Days”) is good in case packaging is lost or destroyed. For restaurant purposes, you may want to take a hard line with those dates (especially if the Department of Health interprets them the way many consumers do), but a it’s up to you how you handle them in the home.
There’s another golden rule to pair with “First In First Out”.
“When in doubt, throw it out.”