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Do you throw food away when it reaches the sell by or the use by date?

One of the dilemmas that many consumers have is deciding whether to throw food out, for example eggs, produce, or cake mix, if the sell buy date passes or whether food should instead be stamped with a use by date so the customer will know when the food is likely to be unsafe to eat, especially when it comes to packaged produce, eggs, dairy, or nondairy substitutes. If the sell by date on packaged produce, canned goods, eggs, dairy, nondairy milk/yogurt/kefir/ice cream/frozen desserts, fruits/vegetables, cereals, grains, or various processed food is used only to take inventory and the "best if used by" date is on a package, how do you know when to throw the expired food away? You may wish to take a look at sites such as, "How long do eggs stay good in the refrigerator?" Or check out the site, "Expiration Date On Eggs - Extensive, Accurate Search Results." There's also an excellent site, "How Long To Wait Before Trashing Expired Yogurt, Eggs."

Do you throw food away when it reaches the sell by or the use by date?
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Though not required, most egg cartons also contain a "sell by" date beyond which they should not be sold. In USDA-inspected plants (indicated by the USDA shield on the package), this date can't exceed 30 days beyond the pack date which is within USDA regulations. For example, eggs may be stamped with a "sell by" date, whereas packaged green vegetables in plastic or other types of bags or packages may be stamped with "use by" dates. You could check out the article, "Food Product Dating - Food Safety and Inspection Service." Or see, "Sell Date of Eggs - What's Cooking America."

When it comes to when to throw away refrigerated eggs, according to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA), many eggs reach stores only a few days after the hen lays them. Egg cartons with the USDA grade shield on them, indicating they came from a USDA-inspected plant, must display the 'pack date' (the day that the eggs were washed, graded, and placed in the carton). The number is a three-digit code that represents the consecutive day of the year (the 'Julian Date') starting with January 1 as 001 and ending with December 31 as 365.

The USDA explains that the "sell by" or "best if used by" or "exp (date)" are all expressions used by the industry in various states, and are used by the retailer to assure you of freshness. The egg will continue to be fresh for at least another 2-3 weeks if it has been refrigerated from the time packed until used at 45 degrees F. or lower. As the egg ages, it does lose some of its qualities, so if you were baking a cake or whipping meringue, your cake might not rise as high as expected, and you might not get the volume of meringue you would expect, so for baking purposes it is better to use a fresher egg.

How long are eggs good after the sell date?

Refrigerated raw shell eggs will keep without significant quality loss for about 4 to 5 weeks beyond the pack date or about 3 weeks after you bring them home. A general rule to follow is that any egg that looks or smells odd should NOT be used. Just crack each egg in a small bowl, smell it - your nose will tell you.

How to test if an egg is fresh, explains the USDA is to use any one of the two methods it recommends, according to the article, "Sell Date of Eggs - What's Cooking America." The first method instructions you to fill a deep bowl with water and carefully lower the egg into the water. A very fresh egg will immediately sink to the bottom and lie flat on its side. This is because the air cell within the egg is very small. The egg should also fee quite heavy.

As the egg starts to lose it freshness and more air enters the egg, it will begin to float and stand upright. The smaller end will lie on the bottom of the bowl, while the broader end will point towards the surface. The egg will still be good enough to consume. However, if the egg fully floats in the water and does not touch the bottom of the bowl at all, it should be discarded, as it will most likely be bad.

The second method that the USDA suggests is to test the eggs freshness by breaking the egg onto a flat plate, not into a bowl. The yolk of a very fresh egg will have a round and compact appearance and it will sit positioned quite high up in the middle of the egg. The white that surrounds it will be thick and stays close to the yolk. A less fresh egg will contain a flatter yolk, that may bread easily and a thinner white that spreads quite far over the plate.

Are too many expired foods being donated to food banks?

According to the July 10, 2014 Military Life article, "Commissary To Donate Expired Food," Food banks generally accept food items up to six months past their “expiration” ( or “best buy”) dates. After the government shutdown last year left the commissary closed Oct. 2 to 6, stores found themselves with a sizable amount of food that they could not sell thanks to expiration dates, but was not bad enough to be trashed. So the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) received permission from the Defense Department (DoD) to donate it instead of taking it to the dumpster. The result? Over $250,000 in food donated to 72 food banks nationwide. Now officials have made that kind of relationship the norm.

Food banks generally accept food items up to six months past their “expiration” (or “best buy”) dates. However, the store is not permitted to sell the food after those dates. That means that food that has hit an “expiration date” or, in the case of produce, isn’t the highest quality has to leave the shelves. And if it isn’t donated it instead is headed to the trash.

The article explains that the new program keeps that from happening. Instead food considered “unsellable but eatable” is donated, according to DeCA officials. That article notes that items such as produce which has been culled (removed from the sales floor) as the product is no longer sellable due to spoilage of the product – customers would not purchase nor would the products be sold, according to the DeCA. The article explains that products are inspected by the medical food inspectors prior to donation to ensure the food is still eatable. Interestingly, a lot of consumers from a variety of walks of life would like to see food being converted into biofuel instead of ending up in trash piles at garbage dumps.

Other foods just have the date when the food expires stamped on the wrapping or container

When do you throw the food away? For example some cake mixes have a use by date stamped on the box. You have a situation where people are donating expired foods to food banks instead of discarding them or donating them to companies that turn expired foods into biofuels. For example, some supermarkets turn their expired foods into energy that runs various machines or turbines. See, "Epiphergy Gives New Life to Old Food |" Or take a look at the article, "Supermarkets only give 2% of unwanted food to hungry." One report explains that 40% of food being produced each year is thrown away, according to articles such as "NRDC: Wasted - How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food" or "Why 40% of U.S. food is thrown away - MarketWatch."

Can you believe the food expiration dates on packaged foods?

Some say "use by" with the date stamped below. Other packages are stamped with a "best by (date). Some chefs say eggs can be used even after the expiration date if they're refrigerated.

Nutritional supplements such as vitamins and plant extracts may have a shelf life based on two years or less. Sometimes the date of manufacture is stamped on the container. That date would be different than the date of expiration. Minerals such as calcium and magnesium may last longer than the expiration date.

Don't keep yogurt in the refrigerator more than a few days. Consult several sites before taking any chances with food safety. Your refrigerator temperature and other factors play in here, including how long the item sat in the store cooler.

Manufacturer's date or expiration date on supplements?

Is your supplement marked with the date the product had been made in the factory? Or is it an expiration date when the product no longer is safe to eat, or loses its potency and taste? Minerals may last longer than plant extracts or vitamins that have an expiration date listed on the container.

When it comes to green leafy vegetables, the question is what's on a package of salad greens when it says "best by" (date) instead of "use by" date. Nutrition goes down rapidly with spinach left in the dark refrigerator. But carrots and beets, potatoes, and various root vegetables can last longer if stored in a dry, cool area of your refrigerator. Lemons can be kept out of the refrigerator, but limes need to be in the refrigerator to keep their nutrients. Tomatoes are not to be refrigerated unless they're already cut up. Always refrigerate vegetables and fruits that you cut, slice, puree, or chop.

Also, when you order nutritional items by mail from various online sites, many of these businesses don't mark the outside of the box "fragile, liquid, glass" or "this side up." And liquid items such as olive leaf extract, apple cider vinegar, and similar items spill out in their plastic wraps, especially when the inner seal on the bottles of liquid is not pasted on tight. These items need to be mailed in a tic-tac-toe type of cardboard retainer that keeps the glass bottles from bumping into one another. With plastic bottles, the liquid easily can spill even when wrapped in plastic bags.

The liquid in a carton box mailed out sometimes seeps out from under the loose inner seal under the cap, and the staff can't tighten the caps because there's also an outer plastic seal wrap around the cap. You may get a box filled with liquid, and no markings on the outside of the box which side should stay up in handling or marked 'glass' or 'fragile.'

When your product is stamped with a "sell by" date versus a "best buy" date

The sell by date usually lets you keep the item in the refrigerator a few days after you buy it, anywhere from two to five days, depending on what the item is. Green vegetables lose nutrition fast. Spinach in a plastic package loses nutrition in the dark refrigerator after a few days. Carrots dry out in the package about three to five days in the refrigerator after the "sell by" date is past. The "use by date" means you must use the item by that date of expiration. The "best buy" date refers to a food item tasting its best by the date stamped on the packaged item, such as cut up vegetables or fruit which is refrigerated.

There's also a stamp that may say "sell by" (date). The sell by date usually allows anywhere from three to five days in your refrigerator. Cans usually have a two-year shelf-life if unopened or not punctured, and the expiration date or the date of manufacture may be stamped on the top or bottom of the can or jar. It's best to check with the manufacturer as you don't want to eat food contaminated by a rusty can or eat the leached-out chemicals from the linings of the can that has been standing for a long time beyond the manufacturers date.

The USDA says that the date can be no further ahead than 30 days after the packing date. Your store can choose any day within that 30 days to date the eggs. If you don't find a date on the carton, using the eggs within three weeks of the carton date should allow them to be used within optimum quality. By "optimum quality," we refer to the fact that the yolk will be high and upstanding, and the white will be tall and firm. As the membrane releases from the shell, the whites spread out, so you want to use fresh eggs for poaching and other recipes where shape is important, and save the older eggs for scrambled eggs and recipes that includes eggs. You may wish to check out the site, "Eggs: A Consumer Guide - Illinois Department of Agriculture."

What information is included on the egg carton label?
All eggs sold at retail must be prepackaged in new cartons. Labels must include the grade, size, candling date, and name and address of the packer, distributor or retail store. Although not required by law, operators are encouraged to stamp cartons with a date by which eggs should be sold.

The candling, or Julian, date is a three-digit number indicating the specific day of the year on which the eggs were graded, sized and packed. For example, the number 001 would represent Jan. 1, while 365 would be Dec. 31. This number provides an indication of the eggs' freshness.

Eggs cannot be sold at retail more than 30 days after the candling date. To prevent eggs from being sold beyond this time frame, many packers mark cartons with a "sell by" date. The "sell by" date, also called the expiration date, must not exceed 30 days after the candling date. After the expiration date has passed, unsold eggs are returned to the supplier where they may be recertified by trained graders or shipped to egg breaking plants for processing into liquid, frozen or dried eggs.

Is it safe to use eggs after the "sell by" or expiration date has passed?
Yes. "Sell by" or expiration codes indicate freshness, not necessarily wholesomeness. Since egg quality deteriorates over time, "sell by" dates are used to ensure the grade specified on the label is accurate. If stored properly, eggs may be safely consumed several weeks beyond the expiration date.

Are eggs nutritious?
Yes. Eggs contain 13 vitamins and numerous minerals. One egg provides 10 to 13 percent of the daily reference value for protein--as much as one ounce of lean meat, fish or poultry. Egg protein is the highest quality food protein--second only to mother's milk for human nutrition.

Eggs are nutrient-dense; they provide many nutrients compared to the number of calories they contain. The following chart lists the calorie count for different sizes. One large egg contains about 4.5 grams of fat, but only 1.5 grams of saturated fat, the kind linked to increased blood cholesterol levels. More than half the egg's total protein content is found in the egg white, which is both fat- and cholesterol-free.

Are white eggs better than brown eggs?
No. Shell color depends on the breed of hen that produced the egg. It does not affect the egg's nutritive value, cooking properties, flavor or quality.

Why do eggs sometimes turn green when cooked?
When eggs are cooked for too long or at too high a temperature, they will sometimes turn green. Color change may also occur if the cooking water contains a high level of iron. Although the green tint does not affect flavor or wholesomeness, it may be avoided by cooking at low temperatures and using stainless steel equipment.

Is it safe to consume eggs with blood spots on the yolk?
Yes. The presence of blood spots on the yolk does not mean the egg is fertilized or unfit to eat. Blood spots occur occasionally when a blood vessel on the yolk sac surface ruptures during egg formation. Easily removed with the tip of a knife, the spots do not affect the egg's nutritive or chemical properties.

What is salmonella?
Salmonella refers to a type of bacteria that may lead to food poisoning in humans and animals. Eggs, as well as other foods, are susceptible to bacterial growth. However, eggs have several natural barriers that help prevent contamination, such as the shell, enzymes found in the egg white and membranes surrounding the shell and yolk.

Observing the following precautions will help prevent salmonella food poisoning:

  • Use only fresh, clean, unbroken, properly refrigerated eggs.
  • Avoid mixing yolks and whites with the shell.
  • Refrigerate eggs and egg dishes if you do not plan to eat them within an hour.
  • Keep cold egg dishes at temperatures below 41 degrees and hot egg dishes above 140 degrees.
  • Use homemade eggnog and ice-cream recipes based on cooked, stirred custard.
  • Keep hands and utensils clean when cooking.
  • Wash hands before and after handling raw poultry products.

Agriculture Department officials conduct annual inspections of about 10,000 businesses that sell, grade, pack or serve eggs and more than 725 facilities that traffic large quantities of eggs to wholesalers or retailers. All people who market eggs commercially must be licensed by the Agriculture Department unless they are producers who only sell eggs for personal use. Agriculture Department inspectors visit supermarkets and other retail outlets to ensure eggs are kept in a sanitary environment, are adequately refrigerated, are whole and undamaged, and meet the grade, weight and date specified on the carton.

Can you believe the expiration date, the use-by date, the best used by date, the manufacturer's date, and the sell by date?

Most people may not know how long food can be kept and safely eaten whether it's in a can, the freezer, refrigerator, package, or nutritional supplement. How long can you keep milk if you refrigerate it at or below 40 degrees F after buying it? What if you freeze it? The rule is when it doubt, throw it out.

The problem is the expiration date of any given food may be haphazard when it comes to safety. Expired foods upset stomachs or have other side effects, including toxins. Check out the article in the Boston Globe. Most people don't eat foods past their expiration date. Some uncaring souls donate expired foods to food banks, particularly canned items that usually have lost their taste, color, and may be harmful. The actual statistics given note that three fourths of Americans think expired food is not safe to eat.

Food banks are concerned why so many people get rid of expired packages of food, such as canned vegetables and fish by donating it to the poor. There's no reason to take a chance on getting someone sick because the family is in need of help with food.

Each year as food costs skyrocket and schools close for breaks, food banks are bracing for a record number of cash strapped families seeking meals as children will not be getting free meals from school during the various annual breaks.

Food banks across the U.S. are seeking increased donations as they face major shortages in food donations from manufacturers and wholesalers and a decrease in federal funding, while the demand for food handouts are increasing. But too many people decide to clean out their pantries and donate all the expired food they find to food banks. It's like putting coals in holiday stockings instead of gifts of edible foods.

Please don't donate expired food. You'd be surprised at how many pudding packages, unused packages rice and/or beans that has been standing since the 2000 doomsday prepared movement, canned food items such as years-old coconut milk, and soup cans on the shelf for years are donated to food banks. On the other hand, most people want to know how long shelf life lasts on any given food item, medicine, or nutritional supplements such as vitamins and plant extracts. For example, some minerals last longer than vitamins.

Shelf life of when vitamins expire may have language on the label that sometimes is vague

If you check out the WebMD, site, you can see various ways food is classified regarding sell days. With canned food, the date of manufacture or expiration usually is stamped on the bottom of the can, and you should eat it by the date you see. Whether it's safety as an issue or taste, beyond that date, the food changes. Coconut milk in cans clump together as a solid and taste like white fat, for example, especially in the winter.

Some vitamin companies even list a date the produce had been manufactured rather than an expiration date. Sites such as and catalog how far past their supposed "best by" dates foods are still eatable, according to a January 18, 2013 Huffington Post article, "Expiration Dates for 23 Types of food." Check out the site to get a handle on how to read expiration dates and how long food remains safe and edible.

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