Is That Food Past Its “Date” Okay?
— by Shannon Middleton
Have you ever wondered what exactly the date on a box of cereal means? Is the date on a carton of eggs when they are no longer good? How do you know if a product is still ok to eat? How does the Ocean Shores Food Bank decide what foods are safe to give to guests?
Volunteers at the food bank care not just about eliminating hunger in our community but about the health and safety of our guests. We want you to know that we have processes in place to sort out unsafe food and would never knowingly give you food that is no longer edible.
“If I wouldn’t eat it, I’m not going to put it out there,” said Kathy Baker, one of the six members of our donation sorting team.
This includes donations of severely dented cans, opened packages including opened packages of pet food, food that has no date, and food that has spoiled. On average, about ten percent of donations we receive must be discarded for these reasons.
But what about food that is beyond its best-by date or sell-by date? Is that still safe to eat?
Yes! According to the USDA best-by dates refer to only the quality of the food (freshness, taste, and texture), not when the food is no longer good or safe to eat. In fact, some canned foods are good up to four years past their best-by date. Eggs are still considered safe to eat four to five weeks after their sell-by date, if they are kept refrigerated at 45 degrees F. Unopened cereal lasts six to eight months past the date on the box. Uncooked meat can be stored in the freezer for four months.
Sell-by dates let stores know how long to display the product for sale. This is not mandatory, however, and again refers only to the freshness and quality of the food.
Expiration dates refer to the last date food should be eaten or used. These dates are, however, also voluntary.
The only foods that the USDA requires to have an expiration date are infant formula and some baby foods.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, sure signs of spoiled food include mold, an “off” smell, a different texture than expected, or an unpleasant taste. If a product has any of these signs, it is best to trash it.
One of the ways we source our donated food, where we must follow specific safe-handling protocols, is through Food Lifeline’s Retail and Food Service Partnerships Program. We receive food items, weekly, from Safeway in Aberdeen. According to Harry Yanagimachi, our transportation manager, because our building is located more than 30 minutes from the source, “strict handling and temperature checks are dictated.”
That means that frozen foods, prepared deli, and prepackaged items need to be temperature-checked at Safeway and register below 41 degrees F. “If not, we cannot accept them.” The food is then packed in ice. Temperatures are measured again and recorded, when they arrive at the food bank, to confirm that they are still at 41 degrees F. If not, they are discarded. Food that will not keep until the next distribution is donated to other sources that are able to use it more immediately.
Hopefully, you now have a better sense of meaning of food dates and our safe-handling practices at the Ocean Shores Food Bank.
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