Food Safety Education Month – Food Labeling

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September is National Food Safety Education Month and this is the last in my series of columns focusing on food safety. One of the most confusing things related to food safety is knowing when food is safe to eat and when it’s not.

Let’s start with the dates that appear on food. Use by dates on products can help us determine the age of a product, but pitching food just because it’s past that date can be unnecessary and wasteful. Unfortunately, there are not uniform or universally accepted descriptions used for dating food labels in the United States. As a result, there are several phrases used on food labels to describe quality dates. Note the word here is quality, not safety.

Examples of commonly used phrases:

  • A “Best if Used By/Before” date indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for
    inventory management. It is not a safety date.
  • A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula.
  •  A “Freeze-By” date indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

There is only one type of food that requires dates on labels. This is infant formula.
Because infant formula is the only food babies eat, it must contain the amount of
nutrients listed on the label. Nutrition may go down during storage, so that is why
infant food cannot be sold after its use-by date. Another quality indicator on infant food is that it must maintain an acceptable quality to pass through an ordinary bottle nipple.

“Use-By” date are selected by the manufacturer and (of course) they want you to eat their food when it is at its best quality. If the product has been handled properly and kept at proper temperatures, it should be safe, wholesome and of good quality after the date expires. Food should still be safe to eat until spoilage is evident.

According the United Stated Department of Agriculture (USDA) website there are two types of bacteria that can be found on food: pathogenic bacteria, which cause foodborne illness, and spoilage bacteria, which do not cause illness but do cause foods to deteriorate and develop unpleasant characteristics.”

Microorganisms such as molds, yeasts, and bacteria can multiply and cause food to
spoil. When spoilage bacteria have nutrients (food), moisture, time, and favorable
temperatures, these conditions will allow the bacteria to grow rapidly and affect the
quality of the food. Food spoilage can occur much faster if food is not stored or handled properly. Spoiled foods develop an off odor, flavor or texture due to naturally occurring spoilage organisms. Foods may also develop mold. If food has any of these characteristics it should not be eaten.

But deciding if food in a refrigerator is safe or not is not always an easy decision. There are many unknowns. You need to think about both the pathogenic bacteria that cause foodborne illnesses (that you may not be able to see, taste or smell) as well as the spoilage bacterial. Here are some of the factors to consider:

  • Temperature of the fridge. Hint: it should be below 41 degrees F.
  • How long has the food been open? A rule-of-thumb is that cooked foods,
    leftovers or opened packages of food should be used within 7 days.
  • How many times has this food been taken out of the fridge and for what length
    of time? The recommendation is that food should not be allowed to remain at
    room temperature for more than four hours—this is cumulative.
  • Did someone in your household contaminate the food after it was opened?
    Practices such as licking spoons, not washing hands, drinking from the milk
    carton, can contaminate the food.
  • Also, what kind of product is it? (Pasteurized, fermented or aged products are
    going to last longer than fresh).
  • The other thing to consider is…what food is it in the first place. Pickles and salad dressings will definitely have a longer time frame than leftover meatballs.

Thanks for joining me in learning about food safety as we celebrated September as
National Food Safety Education Month. But remember, food safety is important year-round, not just one month a year.

Syracuse is a Family and Consumer Science team member and can be reached at N.C. Cooperative Extension, Brunswick County Center 910-253-2610