Throw out that milk: A guide to food expiration dates

A customer scans the expiration date on gallons of milk sitting on a cooler shelf at a Safeway grocery store in Washington, DC.

View and download a helpful infographic that details expiration dates for popular items in your fridge. View the infographic

David Brancaccio: The other day we were cleaning out the fridge here in the Marketplace New York bureau: once a decade whether it needs it or not.  During the hazmat procedure, it was duly noted that the oldest legible sell by date found was September 2009.

Marketplace's Adrienne Hill is working on a story about food safety for our weekend show, Marketplace Money. Why not ask her how carefully these sell-by dates are regulated? Adrienne, good morning.

Adriene Hill: Good morning David.

Brancaccio: So, help me understand expiration dates -- it’s clear. If it says a certain date and it’s past it, don’t eat it.

Hill: Not quite. Unfortunately, it’s really complicated. The thing to know is the federal government only requires expiration dates. The only food date it requires on infant formula. So the rest of the dates you see, use by, sell by, best by, eat by, all of those things -- they’re regulated at the state level and they’re often established by the food companies.

Brancaccio: Alright -- do any of those, that long list, do they mean anything?

Hill: Well it kind of depends on the date.

Here’s Christine Bruhn. She’s a food science professor at UC Davis.

Christine Bruhn: It varies, depending upon the food product. Sometimes it tells you when the grocery store should be selling the product. Sometimes it tells you the quality of the product and when you should be using.

Hill: So a lot of this is just about common sense about what to eat and what to toss.

Brancaccio: So how do you decide? Eat it and maybe preserve some food or spend the money and start all over?

Hill: Well it kind of depends on the food. There’s some food, like eggs which I always wonder about, that are good after the sell by date that you see on the package. And the USDA says you can actually eat them three to five weeks after you buy them, even if that sell by date has passed. 

Brancaccio: If you crack them open and a chicken comes out, it’s too late.

Hill: It’s too late -- do not eat that! And with dairy, which is something else I wonder about, here’s Bruhn again:

Bruhn: If it’s something like dairy products, milk and yogurt, these have been pasteurized. They can safely be consumed beyond that sell by date.

Brancaccio: I mean Adriene, many of us just use the nose test, right.

Hill: Yeah, you know this is actually how I eat too, I sniff around, I look around. And I talked to some food scientists and they told me there are bacteria that are dangerous out there that actually can grow in your foods and you can’t smell them.

Brancaccio: Alright so any reporting this story, did you glean any secret tips for wasting less food and maybe less money?

Hill: The best piece of advice -- just buy less and there’ll be less to spoil.

Brancaccio: Alright. Marketplace’s Adriene Hill, thank you very much.

Hill: Thanks.

About the author

Adriene Hill is a senior multimedia reporter for the Marketplace sustainability desk, with a focus on consumer issues and the individual relationship to sustainability and the environment.

View and download a helpful infographic that details expiration dates for popular items in your fridge. View the infographic

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I bought a bottle of Baltika 7 beer at the Pioneer Supermarket at 289 Columbus Ave, New York, NY 10023 yesterday evening only to find when I got it back to the hotel that it was bottled in Oct 2009 and had a best before date of Oct 2010. On holding the bottle up to a light I noticed there were flakes of yeasty scum floating around in it and a green residue on the bottle (inside) of the bottle. I googled it but could not find a New York food standards agency.

Where I come from in the Uk food is significantly cheaper in the supermarket and it is very rare to find food past its best before date, I have not found anything myself in the last 20 years.. I have stopped eating in New York restaurants because I don't trust food standards here and have not for a long time.

Some states are tougher with "sell-by" dates than others. My state used to fine supermarkets for selling dairy products which had past the expiry date -- but it only happened after the TV consumer reporter showed the scofflaws during the afternoon news.

It's not economical to buy small quantities of many packaged items. Instead preserve serving portions of large quantities. Milk freezes just fine; so do bananas (peel first). Buy an entire roasted chicken and freeze servings for later use. Cook larger meals and freeze half for another night's meal. But be sure to preserve while the food is relatively fresh--there's no point in freezing milk that will go sour shortly after it's thawed.

Two things: Super awesome concept that it is budget friendly to buy smaller quantities even though you pay more for them, because you throw less away. Do you have any information or sources about budgeting smaller quantities at the grocery store, and family size, and which size is the most economical? I mean the cost difference between sizes can be 10's of percentage points, but the cost of throwing 50% of the product away doubles the cost of the product you use. Plants: What do you have against plants? The infographic you don't have any info on Vegetables, Seafood, Grains or Fats/Oils.

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