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December 2013

Toss Foods Past Their Expiration Date?

Recently a number of readers have asked whether food expiration dates set a date for when consumers should dispose of food. Manufacturers print the dates on the outside of food packaging and typically use the words “Sell by’’ “Use by,” “Best if used by,” or “Best Before.”  Unfortunately, many consumers believe this date determines when food should be thrown away.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA), these “open dating” stamps on food products are used by food manufacturers to advise retail grocery stores of how long they should display food products for sale. Federal law does not require date stamping and the date stamp does not indicate the date the food product is no longer safe to eat. Rather, the date stamp indicates how long the food product will maintain its peak quality. After the date passes, the food product might not be of the best quality, but USDA advises it should still be safe to eat if it was handled properly and kept at 40 degrees, Fahrenheit, or below and was not refrigerated beyond the recommended storage time. However, unlike with “Sell-by,” “Best-if-used-by,” and “Best-before” dates, USDA recommends consumers follow “Use-by” dates to ensure the food product’s top quality and safety.

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has published an online guide of recommended food storage timelines: http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/PeopleAtRisk/ucm182679.htm#storchart

This guide not only points out how long products can be kept in a refrigerator or frozen in a freezer but also which food products do not freeze well. The FDA also recommends: (1) purchasing the product before the “sell-by” or expiration date, (2) follow the food handling recommendations on the product, (3) keep meat and poultry in their original packaging until just before using, and (4) if freezing meat and poultry in original packaging for longer than two months, overwrap the packages with airtight heavy-duty foil, plastic wrap, or freezer wrap or place the package inside of a plastic bag.

Of course, if refrigerated food develops an “off” odor, flavor, or appearance despite proper handling, it should be thrown out because it has probably become contaminated by bacteria. Contamination most often occurs because the product has been defrosted at room temperature for more than two hours; was cross-contaminated by using the same knife, for example, to cut raw poultry and raw vegetables; or was handled by people who do not use sound sanitation practices. In these cases, the date stamp does not matter and the food should be thrown away.

Watch Out for Thieves Impersonating Electric Co-op Personnel

Wisconsin electric cooperatives are warning members to watch out for a new scam that began happening this fall as the heating season began. Thieves posing as electric co-op employees are calling members to say that their electricity will be cut off unless the member immediately provides credit or debit card information or obtains a pre-paid debit card and then provides the thief with the information on the card. Your electric cooperative will never call you to ask you to provide credit or debit card information over the phone; co-op employees know there is no way you can verify who is actually calling you. Don’t fall for this scam. Hang up immediately if someone calls you saying he or she is from your electric co-op and asks for this type of personal information; then report the call to your cooperative and the police. 

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