How Safe is Your Food to Eat?
Updated: Apr 18
I admit it! I was affected by the media frenzy and I got caught up over buying pandemic supplies. So, if you are anything like me, you might have a kitchen chock full of stuff right about now and you’re not sure what you have stuffed in crevices. I finally decided to inventory my food in the fridge, freezer, cabinets, and the cleaning supplies in the pantry because I can’t keep track of what I have bought, anymore. I added a column to list hanging on my fridge of the expiration dates of perishable items so I don’t end up wasting food that’s stuck in an abyss.
Because I am on the edge with expiration dates, I decided to research the confusing topic of food labeling dates. I also wanted to talk a little about storing foods safely, so the investment you make doesn’t get wasted.
First, let’s talk about the “dates” stamped on packages. With the exception of baby formula, there are no federal regulations set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on date labeling.
According to the FDA:
Best if Used By/Before date informs the consumer the date when a product will taste its freshest and be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
Sell-By date tells the store how long to display the product for sale (i.e. it tells retailers when to remove a product from shelves) for inventory management. It is not a safety date.
Use-By date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. This is the last date that guarantees the best quality of a product. It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula.
Freeze-By date indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
It goes without saying, that if you open a package and it smells bad, toss it! We have olfactory senses (just like animals) that alert us to food spoilage. Often, spoiled meats will look different in color and will have an unpleasant odor. When in doubt, toss out. But, try not to get to that point if you can (hence, my inventory list!).
Nonperishable items like grains and dried and canned goods can still be used well past their label dates. Raw potatoes need TLC. Do not refrigerate uncooked potatoes. They should be stored in a cool, dry space (45 to 50 F is the ideal temperature range). I keep mine in a paper bag—remove potatoes from the plastic bag if you've brought them home in one. Don’t store potatoes with other vegetables, especially onions. They both release gases that ripen the other one. Most varieties will keep for a month. Potatoes that begin to sprout are probably still ok if they are firm, but if they have long sprouts, it’s time to toss. Any tubers with large areas of green should be discarded. Small green spots should be ok, but dig them out.
Like potatoes, onions and shallots are best stored in a cool, dry, dark places. Peel-ed onions can be stored in the fridge for 10–14 days, while sliced or cut onions can be refrigerated for 7–10 days. Again, store other ripening fruits and vegetables away from the onions. If you find any discolored part of the onion, just cut those pieces off and you can use the rest of the onion.
There are also some tricks to extend the shelf-life of veggies. I put paper towels in the lettuce/spinach containers (top and bottom) to keep the condensation and moisture contained. Or wrap lettuce heads in a slightly damp towel and then store in a plastic bag. Cut off a half-inch off the bottom of asparagus stalks and then stand them up in a (large yogurt) container with a half-inch of water.
According to Organic Valley’s website, here’s the deal on freezing dairy:
Butter: easy to do. Keep it in its original container.
Milk: don’t freeze in the original container. Transfer the milk to airtight, plastic containers (I would consider glass Mason jars, myself). Leave a little at the top of the container to allow for the liquid to expand as it freezes. Thaw in refrigerator when ready to use and use it within seven days. They suggest giving the jar a good shake to remix the proteins and fats. Freeze for 3 months.
Yogurt: doesn’t freeze well.
Eggs: As you would expect, you can’t freeze eggs in their shells. Organic Valley suggests cracking eggs and freezing them in ice cube trays, then transferring the cubes into a freezer bag. You can also (lightly) beat the eggs and do the same thing. I’ve had good luck freezing cartons of egg whites. They take a few days to thaw in the fridge, though. How long are raw eggs good for? Refrigerated, shell eggs will keep for approximately 4- 5 weeks beyond the sell date.
Cheese: pre-shred semi-soft cheeses like mozzarella, jack-style cheeses, and mild cheddar and put them into freezer bags. Extremely soft cheeses like cottage cheese, brie, and ricotta or hard cheeses like parmesan and cheddar won’t freeze well. Thawed cheeses should be used sooner than later.
Time to go take inventory… and for you techies, I can only imagine the spreadsheet you will come up with. Mine is simply noted in pencil and updated with a good ol’ eraser!