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When Does Your Food Really Expire?

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Photo:toddmecklem/Flickr/Creative Commons License

As I previously discussed, expiration dates on food labels are way more confusing than helpful. Between the "best by" and "sell by" and "enjoy by," and whatever other variations of the terminology are out there, the expiration dates on the packaging may actually do more harm than good. Sure, grocery stores and food manufacturers may be saved from any unnecessary legal wrangling caused by a customer ingesting their spoiled products, but the dates also scare consumers into tossing away food that's still perfectly fine to eat. And that's part of the reason why half of the world's food is thrown away.

Luckily, there are people trying to change this mentality.

One such soul is former Trader Joe's president Doug Rauch, who plans to launch a new grocery store in Massachusetts that sells only "expired" food at a low cost. Opening day is currently set for May. And, if this kind of thing does well there, it may be the start of a new food revolution. It's not unreasonable to think that 2014 might be the Year of Eating "Expired" Food.

So, how is the consumer at home to know when they should throw out certain foods, and which ones they should hang on to? Well, if you have a working nose and eyes, it's easier than you think. But if you don't trust your senses, there's still plenty of places on the Internet to find that information. One is StillTasty.com, where consumers can plug in their groceries to see when the actual expiration date is. In order to take it for a test spin -- and, ideally, for us all to learn a little something in the process -- I opened my fridge, removed a handful of foods with "expiration dates," and used the site to see if they should be kept or tossed.

(Note: Seeing as time is of the essence here, it should be noted that all note-taking took place on January 21st, 2014.)

- Package of deli-sliced turkey cold cuts ("Packed On: Jan 7th, 2014"). This one should definitely be tossed away, as they're only good for three to five days unless frozen.

- Package of sour cream ("Enjoy By: January 10th, 2014"). This was actually only opened a week ago, so it can be kept seeing as it's still good 14 days after the date on the box if it's unopened and two weeks after it's actually been opened.

- Carton of eggs ("Sell By: Feb 7th, 2008"). Clearly, this was a typo, as the eggs were purchased a week ago, which may hint at how much stock should be put into these dates. Unless the eggs are time travelers -- which would be awesome -- these are to be kept and okay to eat for another three to five weeks, despite what the "sell by" date says. [Ed. note: The U.S. is one of the few countries in the world that refrigerates eggs!]

- Package of hummus ("Best Before: Feb 24th, 2014"). This can be kept, seeing as it was just opened two days ago, and once it's opened it can last for one week in the fridge.

- Carton of half and half ("Nov 15th, 2013"). Oh, man. This sucker needs to get thrown out post-haste. A carton can last about three to four days after the "sell by" date, which, as you can see, was before last Thanksgiving. That said, my nose was able to come to the same conclusion with a quick sniff.

- Jar of peanut butter ("Use By: April 14th, 2014"). This was just opened a few days ago, which means I have another three months to eat it, and then another three to four months if I throw it in the fridge. So, certainly have some time with this one. It's kept. As you can tell, the "use by" date really doesn't mean a whole lot with peanut butter.

- Jar of sun-dried tomatoes ("Best By: March 8th, 2015"). This is unopened, in the fridge, and apparently just taking up unnecessary space in there, seeing as it can last unopened in the pantry for a full year. So, I removed it from the fridge, and stuck it on the shelf instead.

- Package of cheddar cheese ("Sell By: 4/19/14"). This has yet to be opened, which is amazing, seeing as cheese is delicious and I have zero self control. So, certainly it's kept, but I can keep it seven days after I open it. No doubt, it'll be gone long before the "sell by" date, as, once again, cheese is delicious.

- Bottle of ketchup ("January 1st, 2014"). Once opened, it can last six months in the fridge before it needs to be tossed. And while I'm not entirely sure when I bought it, I know it's been around for less than that. Luckily for me, it has only about two or three squirts left so it's definitely being kept.

- Package of mini peeled carrots ("Use By: Feb 9th, 2014"). These can be kept for three weeks from when they were opened (two days ago), meaning the actual "use by date" for this package is ... exactly February 9th! Labels finally got one right!

So, there you have it. Hopefully, some of that was informative. And if it wasn't, you can take solace in the fact that my own fridge is now in tip-top shape.

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