How to know if that food in the fridge is safe to eat -- or not

I’ll admit that I’ve found my share of forgotten food in the fridge!

And I’ve tried to figure out those “best by,” “use by” and “sell by” dates, but more often than not, end up trashing probably perfectly good food under the idea of “better safe than sorry.”

While you may think that all those dates really mean something, or are required by the FDA, for the most part that’s not true. In fact, many dates are, as one expert said, “essentially made up” by the food industry.

That means you may actually be throwing out some items for no good reason at all. But where perishable food is concerned, there are things that should be discarded in a very timely way — or you can risk some serious trouble.

Your nose knows!

First, if you’re confused by the differences in wording used for expiration dates on food, join the club. The truth is, no one can say exactly what any of them mean.

But all that may be changing soon, and surprisingly for the better.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association and another Big Food trade group, the Food Marketing Institute, have finally admitted that current food dating should go the way of the T-Rex.

What these two organizations are in the process of doing (as a totally voluntary practice for now, but one likely to be adopted by most food manufacturers) is to end the confusion by paring the entire business down to just two terms:

1: “Best if used by,” and

2: “Use by”

The first will indicate a date when the food is past its peak quality and taste, but can still be used.

The second one means that anything you consume past that date is at your own risk. In other words, throw it out!

As far as the current system goes, however, it’s basically a hodgepodge of made-up dates, most of which have no real meaning.

For example:

  • Dairy dilemmas: Milk, probably the biggest questionable item in your fridge, can be used up to a week after the date on the package even if it has turned sour. “Spoiled” milk is great in pancake, biscuit and waffle mixes, and according to experts, as it “turns,” it becomes more acidic, which actually inhibits bacteria growth. While the shelf life of milk and cheese aren’t, for the most part, regulated, in my hometown of Baltimore it’s against the law to sell milk past its “sell-by” date — but oddly, that rule doesn’t apply in the rest of Maryland!
  • Long-lasting eggs: Eggs keep for quite a while past the date on the carton — for around five weeks. But if you’re ever unsure about whether or not to use them, just give them the “float test.” Put the uncooked eggs (still in their shells) in a bowl of water, and if they float, toss them (gently!) in the trash.
  • Bread and butter: If you’re a bread gourmet, you know a loaf is considered stale when it’s a day old. Typical supermarket bread, however, should last a week in the pantry after the “sell by” date. As for butter, it should be good in the fridge for around a month past that date.

There are some foods, however, that should absolutely be trashed once they’ve gone beyond their date, regardless of the wording.

One is bagged salad. Pre-washed and cut greens are often contaminated with bacteria to begin with. If left in the refrigerator too long, that contamination can take over. Slimy leaves (no matter what the date) are a tipoff that the whole bag should be discarded instead of just picking out the bad pieces.

Deli meats, including hot dogs, are another item you never want to take a chance with past its expiration date. Listeria — a nasty bacterial contaminant that is especially risky for pregnant women, seniors and those with compromised immune systems — can actually grow in the cold temps of your refrigerator!

But with most other, less risky foods, your nose is often the best detective as to whether something is okay to eat — or not.

“The end is coming for the sell-by date, and this will make your life better” Jennifer Graham, March 15, 2017, Deseret News,