You're halfway to putting dinner on the table when you notice the milk you're about to add to the mac-and-cheese passed its sell-by date a week ago.
Can you still use it?
Many a cook has wrestled with this dilemma because of ambiguous food labels that say things like "sell by," “use by" and "best before" instead of something more obvious and direct, like a skull and crossbones on a poison label.
But that's about to change.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute announced recently that they will trade 10 commonly used phrases that indicate freshness and replace them with just two: "Best if used by" and "Use by."
Unlike some upcoming labeling changes that have been mandated by the Food and Drug Administration, the new labels aren't a response to a law, but a cooperative agreement by the two trade groups, with the goal of keeping consumers safe and cutting down on food waste.
"Best if used by" will indicate that the product is at peak quality until the date indicated. After that, it may not taste as good or perform as well, but it will still be safe to use.
"Use by" is the closest we'll come to "eat this after this date, plan to be home sick tomorrow." It will indicate that the product should be thrown out if it isn't consumed by that date.
"Research shows that the multitude of date labels that appear on foods today are a source of confusion for many consumers," Frank Yiannas, vice president of food safety and health for Wal-Mart, said in a statement. "As advocates for the customer, we're delighted with this industry-wide, collaborative initiative that will provide consistency, simplify consumers' lives and reduce food waste in homes across America."
The two trade groups hope to have widespread compliance by 2018, but is encouraging food manufacturers to begin making the change immediately. Until then, here's how to navigate the labyrinth of freshness labels.
Sell by or else
Last year, a survey on consumer knowledge of labeling found that one-third of Americans believe that the date labels are required by law.
In fact, they're mostly a courtesy to both consumers and retailers who stock the products. While some states mandate date stamps on perishables such as milk and meat, they are not required by federal law on any product other than baby formula, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And that's not likely to change anytime soon, since President Donald Trump recently nominated a Food and Drug Administration chief, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who shares his view that federal agencies need fewer regulations.
Food policy experts, however, are more concerned about food waste than regulation. They say about 40 percent of the U.S. food supply is thrown out each year, in part because of consumers who discard products by the date shown, rather than if the food or beverage is actually spoiled — and often, it isn't.
As Rose Eveleth wrote for Smithsonian.com, "these dates are — essentially — made up."
"Nobody regulates how long milk or cheese or bread stays good, so companies can essentially print whatever date they want on their products," Eveleth wrote.
And how long the product stays on supermarket shelves differs not only by state, but also by city. In Baltimore, for example, it's illegal to sell milk older than its sell-by date, but not elsewhere in Maryland.
The nose knows
Laws and labels aside, the most reliable way of discerning if a food or beverage is safe to consume is to examine it carefully and trust your instincts.
"Our bodies are well equipped to detect when food is spoiled. The food will taste funny or smell bad, or look slimy," Dana Gunders, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told The New York Times.
In most cases, Gunders said, the worst thing that can happen if you eat spoiled food is a passing stomach ache. Most widely publicized cases of food-related illness come from food that's been contaminated, not food that is old, she said.
That said, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists advises pregnant women not to eat certain kinds of food that can harbor listeria, a bacterium that can cause illness in both the mother and baby. And everyone, pregnant or not, should heed the labels on those foods because listeria multiplies even when refrigerated, Gunders said.
Foods and beverages that are vulnerable to listeria contamination include unpasturized milk and cheese, hot dogs and other processed meat, and unwashed raw produce. If contaminated, these foods can sicken not only pregnant women and newborns, but also seniors and people with weakened immune systems, the CDC says.
So pay close attention to the dates on food that can harbor listeria, as well as cheese — its mold can be deceptive. But trust the sniff test on most everything else, and know that the staying power of some perishables can be surprisingly long.
Eggs, for example, can be fresh for up to five weeks after their sell-by date with no change in their nutrients. And, according to the education website savethefood.com, "Older egg whites are actually better for whipping up into a voluminous meringue than fresh egg whites." (If you're not sure how old they are, use the float test: Put them in a bowl of water. If they sink, they're still good; if they float, throw them out.)
Pasteurized milk is good for up to a week after its sell-by date, and even when it becomes sour, the milk can be used for baked goods, pancakes and homemade cottage cheese. That's because as it ages, the milk becomes more acidic, making it unfriendly to bacteria, scientist Dana Gunders told Allison Aubrey for NPR.
"Actually, cooking with sour milk is delicious. It's a substitute for buttermilk. You can (use it) in pancake or biscuit batter. And you can't taste the sour. I've pushed it, and let the milk get really old. The pancakes turned out fluffy, and really good," Gunders said.
Something else to consider when evaluating whether you should use a food or toss it: where it's been.
According to Savethefood.com, the temperature "danger zone" for food is between 40 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the product. Exceed that, and all bets are off.
"If you leave food out on the counter or in a hot car, it could be unsafe even before the date on the package, regardless of what phrase you see," the website says.