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Prairie Fare: Food Product Dates Can Be Mysterious

Julie Garden-Robinson, NDSU Extension Food and Nutrition Specialist Julie Garden-Robinson, NDSU Extension Food and Nutrition Specialist

By Julie Garden-Robinson, Food and Nutrition Specialist

NDSU Extension Service

“I need help!” was the first line of the e-mail from a college friend. I figured the dilemma involved food. It did.

She was in the process of helping move a relative from a home to a care facility. In the process of helping with the move, my friend discovered large amounts of stored food.

“Do you know what happens to eggs after a year in the fridge? I do!” the note continued.

That comment piqued my interest. She knows me well enough to provide a description. I kind of wish she hadn’t.

“I cracked open a shell, and it was half full with a rubbery, tannish thing. Eew!” she wrote.

Now that’s a visual image, I thought to myself.

Her overall question was, “How long can you use food after the date on the package?”

She noted that they tossed the spices “from the 1970s.” Tossing 30-year-old spices is a good idea. Spices do not become unsafe, but after awhile, they lose their ability to add flavor.

Do you have some “antique” spices? You might want to save the metal containers as collectible decorations, but chances are the spices inside are no longer adding flavor to your recipes.

As a general rule, ground spices and herbs are at best quality for about a year. Whole spices are at best quality for about two years. Buy smaller amounts more frequently for best quality. You can check the potency of a ground spice by rubbing a little in your hand and sniffing the aroma.

Be sure to store spices in a dark, cool place. Avoid storing spices where it’s warm or damp, such as near a stove, sink or dishwasher.

My friend questioned whether the packaged mixes, soups, Jell-O and many other foods that were one to two years past the dates listed on the packages still are OK to use.

I think I refrained from writing back, “It depends.”

Food product dating is one of those mysterious adventures for consumers. Unfortunately, there are no absolutes. In fact, food product dating is not required for most products, with the exception of baby food and infant formula.

Very few foods have actual expiration dates. Most dates on food products are quality dates, not safety dates. Manufacturers commonly list “best if used by” dates because they want their customers to have a good experience with the food.

These are the U.S. Department of Agriculture definitions for the types of dates you might find on packages:

  • Sell by date: tells the store how long to display the product for sale. Consumers should not buy the product after this date.
  • Best if used by (or before) date: tells consumers how long the product will retain its best flavor or quality. (This is not a purchase or safety date.)
  • Use by date: tells consumers the last date that is recommended for using the product while at peak quality. The manufacturer determines this date.
  • Closed or coded date: represents packing numbers for use by the manufacturer to track inventory, rotate stock or locate the product under suspicion of a problem. These dates do not indicate freshness or quality of the product.

What’s the answer to my friend’s question? I personally would not be worried about using dry products, such as dry mixes, weeks or even months past the quality date, especially if they were kept cool and dry. If the dry product contains fat, such as whole-grain flour, the product may have developed off-odors or flavors. Most likely, I would toss them after sniffing.

Even though stored dry foods may be “safe,” high-quality food is important to people. Most people choose not to eat food that has off-odors or colors. Use your senses, as well as the date, to decide.

Commercially canned food has a long storage life of two to five years. Canned tomatoes, fruits and other acidic foods are best used within the two-year period. If the can is leaking or bulging, however, do not consume the contents. For more information about food safety, visit the NDSU Extension Service Web site at

Be sure to regularly rotate the foods in your cupboard so you use the oldest ones first. Here’s an easy recipe. Check out your pantry for the ingredients.

Barbecued Beans

1 pound lean ground beef

1 1/2 c. chopped onion

1 (16-ounce) can baked beans, undrained

1 (16-ounce) can of kidney beans, drained

1 c. ketchup

4 tsp. prepared mustard (or to taste)

2 tsp. cider vinegar

1/4 tsp. salt (optional)

Brown the meat with onions in a nonstick pan over medium heat. Drain any excess fat. Spray slow cooker with nonstick cooking spray. Combine all the ingredients in slow cooker. Cook on low for six to eight hours or on high for two hours. Makes eight servings. Each serving has 320 calories, 8 grams (g) of fat, 40 g of carbohydrate, 8 g of fiber and 720 mg of sodium.

(Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and associate professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.)

NDSU Agriculture Communication

Source:Julie Garden-Robinson, (701) 231-7187,
Editor:Rich Mattern, (701) 231-6136,
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