Last year I started what I thought was a very excellent food safety tradition. I did the Thanksgiving week shopping and discovered there was no room in the pantry or anywhere else.


After standing there thinking for a while, I got to wonder what was really on all those pantry shelves. Item by item, I started to check the “use-by” and “best-by” dates.

To my dismay, I was finding items that not only pre-dated our move to Denver six years ago, but also discovered food we’d been carting around since we moved from a downtown Seattle condo to a house in the suburbs in the mid-1990s.

Needless to say, I did a lot of pitching, filling up one entire garbage can with discarded food items — mostly cans and bottles. It did not even occur to me how heavy one garbage can filled with cans and bottles can be.

Still, I felt really good about carving out a little Thanksgiving tradition all in the name of food safety. I decided it should be the annual event, sort of like changing the batteries in the smoke detector once a year.

Last year, I tossed anything that had been moved from Seattle and had a past due use-by date. I wanted to leave a little for this year. This year I planned to do a little research on all these dates that get stamped on food products.

I knew they have to be pretty important to food safety. How important?  Well, I guess not so much:  “Here’s a superbly kept secret: You know all those dates you see on food products –sell by, use by, best before?” writes Dana Gunders who writes for the National Resources Defense Council staff blog “Switchboard.” 

“Those dates do not indicate the safety of your food, and generally speaking they are not regulated.”

Gunders calls our attention to the USDA’s food labeling site, which says use-by dates are required only for infant formula. All the other dates are there to give us the manufacturer’s opinion on when the product’s peak quality expires.

“Suggestions. For peak quality. That’s all,” Gunders writes.

According to that USDA website, there is “no uniform or universally accepted system for food dating in the United States.”  However, about 20 states have some kind of dating requirements.

The dates found on food items generally mean this:

— A “sell-by” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.


— A “best if used by (or before)” date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

— A “use-by” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. (The manufacturer of the product has determined the date.)

USDA says “even if the date expires during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality if handled properly and kept at 40° F or below.”

Some claim the masses do not understand this system and the result is that most households throw out more good food than they should. Gunders, citing the book “American Wasteland,” says a typical grocery store discards $2,300 worth of “out of date” goods each day.

USDA does tell consumers to discard any food with an off color, flavor or appearance of spoilage or bacteria. One of the reasons government has left the whole expiration-date area to food companies and their consumers is that no hard-and-fast dating system can account for misuse or mishandling.

There’s plenty of room in my old pantry now. I’ll have to rethink this particular Thanksgiving tradition. One of the things we all can do is contribute canned goods to the local food bank to do good and better manage our excesses.