Photo: M. Woodruff/Business Insider
Here’s a little secret about those “sell-by date” labels you see on food packages: They don’t mean that much. The labels, or “open dating,” are meant to tell grocers how long to keep items on shelves. But consumers should know they’re not safety dates, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The real label you want to look out for is “Use By,” which provides the best clue for freshness. Once that date passes, the food won’t be at its best quality.
Date labelling is only required in about 20 states (it’s mandatory in all 50 for infant formula), so sometimes your nose and eyes are the only tools you have to rely on. But if you store things properly, you can extend the life of most groceries by weeks after purchase—or indefinitely, if you freeze it.
Here’s a guide to how long some common foods stay fresh when stored in the fridge (at 40 degrees Fahrenheit):
One to two days: Ground beef, ground poultry and poultry, liver, sausage
Three to five days: Beef, veal, pork and lamb
Five to seven days: Cured ham, uncooked
One to five years: Canned foods. If you keep your cans stashed in cool, dry places, you can store them for years in some cases. Any dated code on canned food is the date that the items were packaged, not a “use-by” reference for consumers, the USDA says. Using the date as a reference point, acidic foods like tomatoes, grapefruit and pineapples can last from 12 to 18 months, while less acidic foods like meat and vegetables last anywhere from two to five years, the agency says.
Three to five weeks: Eggs. Some states do require sell-by or expiration dates on egg cartons by law, but they’re not federally required. If you see a date, you’ll definitely want to buy the eggs before they expire, but you can actually store them in your fridge for three to five weeks.
Two weeks: Hot dogs, sandwich or deli meat, hot dogs unopened; five to seven days if opened.
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