A recent discussion at my day job about the “smell test” for milk inspired me to do a little research into the confusing world of food sell-by dates. While I was aware of the somewhat soft nature of sell-by and use-by dates, I was surprised to learn that with the exception of baby food, there aren’t any federal regulations about the dates that go on our food. There are some state-level regulations, but not many.
These dates also don’t refer to the safety of the food they’re referring to; it’s usually more of a marketing move by the manufacturer to indicate optimum taste and quality of the products. That’s why you’ll often see terms like “best by” or “for guaranteed freshness”¦” before the date. They aren’t saying the food is dangerous after that date; just that they think it may get stale or lose some flavor.
I used to work at National Food-Related Nonprofit and heard my share of hand-wringing over food safety. Basically, the long road that our food takes to get to our plates corresponds with a large number of people that can make the wrong decision about our food. The dates on packaging became necessary in the mid-20th century when that road got longer and more convoluted, and Americans were for the first time no longer dealing with whole foods, but processed food products that made it difficult to make a quick evaluation of freshness.
As always, though, the buck stops with the consumer. The farmer milked the cow, some frightening place did unholy things to the milk, the distributor packaged it and got it to your grocery store, and now it’s in your fridge. You’re the gatekeeper: the last person that gets to decide whether or not the milk is good for you and your family/roommates/couch-crashers. It’s a big responsibility, to be sure, and perhaps that’s why a lot of people just go with the date on the carton. It absolves the individual of the responsibility of deciding for themselves if the milk is OK to drink.
Do you do use the smell test? I universally, reflexively give milk a little sniff before I pour it in my coffee. This habit was actually borne not out of a sense of responsibility, but of a bad experience with milk in my cereal when I was a kid. My mom, perfect Martha Stewart Mom that she was, must have been a little busy or tired one morning when she poured some past-its-prime-milk into her dear daughter’s cereal. That early trauma started what’s become a lifelong habit.
But some people never get to the smell test stage because they’ll throw away any food product that has an expired date on it. While this isn’t inherently a bad practice, it is a little simplistic and it leads to throwing out and wasting food that could be perfectly safe. The truth is, it’s a hard-wired survival instinct for humans, like all animals, to judge whether food is safe to consume. I’m not saying our intuitions are always right; just that we have a pretty strong vested interest in, you know, surviving.
Especially having learned that the dates on food are a lot vaguer than I’d believed, I feel more empowered than ever to make my own judgment call about whether or not my food is fresh. So, you can use the dates on your packaging as a guide, but go with your gut. Or, rather, your five senses. Does the food look and smell appetizing? Is anything weird going on that’s making you hesitate to eat it? If so, then throw it out. But if everything looks fine, except for the ambiguous date on the package, you may want to consider trusting your instincts.