Pop quiz: You take a chicken out of the fridge to fix for dinner and notice that yesterday was the "Sell By" date. What should you do?
A. Throw it away because not many emergency rooms offer a stomach-pumping family plan.
B. Cook it to an internal temperature of 195 F minimum to kill any possible salmonella, and serve it with a pungent sauce to mask any residual fowl odor.
C. Relax, because the supermarket complied with Food and Drug Administration regulations requiring that this chicken be sold before the date on the label.
D. Refuse to answer on the grounds that this is obviously a trick question.
If you selected "D" you are right: This is a trick question. What better way to introduce a column about confusing dates than with a confusing pop quiz?
The truth is, "C" would be correct if not for the word "regulations." Except for baby formula and some baby foods, food product dating is not required under federal regulations. It is a convenience offered to store owners by food manufacturers.
Although dating some products is required in 20 states, it is voluntary on the part of manufacturers and processors. To further shake your confidence, stores are not legally required to remove outdated products from the shelves. So, it's up to you to make sure you are choosing the freshest products. That means scrutinizing package labels to find the package with the most recent date.
WHAT IS PRODUCT DATING?
The use of a calendar date, or "open date," on food packaging (as opposed to a code) is a date stamped onto a package to help the store determine how long to display that item for sale. It also helps the customer know how long an item is good for purchase, and how long it will be at its best quality.
An open date is not a safety date. These dates help stores move older merchandise and protect manufacturers from potential liability claims. Although most markets are vigilant about rotating stock, some are not.
"BEST BEFORE," "BETTER IF USED BEFORE" OR "BEST IF USED BY"
These labels indicate how long a product will retain its flavor, freshness and quality, as determined by the manufacturer.
Typically these labels appear on products like baked goods, cereals, snack foods and some canned foods. The item is still safe to eat after this date, but it may have changed in taste or texture.
"EXPIRES," "USE BY" OR "USE BEFORE"
These phrases appear on yogurt, eggs and other foods that require refrigeration.
Other dating terms are guidelines, but these mean what they say. If you haven't used or consumed the product by the date listed, toss it.
This label is often used for perishable baked goods. Beyond this date, freshness is no longer guaranteed, although the product may still be edible.
This date is usually found on highly perishable foods like meat, milk and bread. This date guides the rotation of shelf stock, and is determined in order to allow time for the product to be stored and used at home. The product is still safe and wholesome past this date.
For example, milk will usually be good for at least a week beyond its "Sell By" date (if properly refrigerated). Meat is still fresh by its "Sell By" date, but it should be consumed or frozen within 48 hours.
Some products bear a pack date indicating when the product was packaged. This date is often encrypted so only manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers can read it. The pack date on some products, such as eggs, is shown by a Julian date (dates numbered 1 through 365), where Jan. 1 is number 1 and Dec. 31 is number 365.
The bottom line is, the fresher your food, the better it is, and the longer you have to consume it at home. Buyers: Beware of the dates, and always read the label. And here's a tip: In a properly stocked store, the freshest items will be at the back of the shelf or underneath older items.
Mary invites questions, comments and tips at [email protected], or c/o Everyday Cheapskate, 12340 Seal Beach Blvd., Suite B-416, Seal Beach, CA 90740. This column will answer questions of general interest, but letters cannot be answered individually. Mary Hunt is the founder of www.DebtProofLiving.com, a personal finance member website and the author of "Debt-Proof Living," released in 2014. To find out more about Mary and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.