The Truth About Expiration Dates

By: Jessa Goddard, Medical Reporter
By: Jessa Goddard, Medical Reporter

Knoxville (WVLT) - First it was the spinach scare, now the lettuce panic. E. coli outbreaks have us all concerned about food safety as we stroll the grocery store aisles and check the labels.

But what do those labels really mean? What is the difference between use by and sell by? In light of this second recall, we decided to read the fine print, and get to the meat of the matter.

E. coli outbreaks are usually associated with raw meat.

But even if you cook meat properly, there are hidden dangers behind the expiration labels.

The dates stamped on the packaging mean very different things...

"Sell by" is a guide for the store to know how long it can display a product for sale.

"Best before" or "best if used by" refers to a quality or flavor of the food.

"Use by" is like an expiration date. Eating it after the date is not recommended.

What most people don't know is, the refrigerator at the store is usually kept much cooler than your refrigerator at home.

"We can't keep meat low enough in our refrigerator because our produce will freeze, and we don't want that, so that's why we say use your meat within a couple of days, or stick it in the freezer," says Dietician Susan Fowlkes.

In fact, when you buy meat, even if the sell by date is five days away, your refrigerator probably isn't cool enough to keep it fresh for more than two.

Refrigeration units at grocery stores are regulated by your county health department.

They aren't allowed to exceed 41 degrees.

But would you even know at what temperature your refrigerator is set?

"You may think that a temperature is correct, but until you actually have a thermometer, you don't really know, so I would encourage everyone to put a thermometer in their refrigerator," says Ronnie Nease, Knox County Environmental Health Director.

Even frozen meat doesn't last forever, it needs to be consumed within three months. Especially ground meat, it spoils more quickly because there's more surface area for bacteria to grow on.

Always drive straight home from the grocery store, because the quality of food starts to diminish immediately.

Make meat and dairy the last things you purchase, and on especially hot days, it would be prudent to store them in a cooler.


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