All About Food: But is it still good?

Terry's husband bought some packaged Persian cucumbers in a large grocery store Sunday, but when Terry opened them Tuesday, they were totally rotten to the point of decomposition. She looked for the sell-by date on the package, but there was none. At another smaller store, Elle overheard a woman complaining to a manager that the hummus she had just bought was moldy. Again, there was no sell-by date. These recent incidents piqued our interest in a subject that seems murky at best.

Federal law does not require stores to post sell-by dates except for infant formula and some baby food, although more than 20 states have some requirements for milk and dairy, California included. There are four specific designations to look for:

1. Pack date relates to canned or packaged foods and tells you when the product was processed. It does not tell you how long it will be good.

2. Best-if-used-by indicates the last day the food is at peak freshness. It is still safe to eat after that date (for a while, depending on the food), but some quality will be lost. This designation refers to an unopened product.

3. Sell-by date is the date that stores pay attention to. If an item has not been sold by that date, it should be pulled from the shelves; however, don't be afraid to buy something on or right before the date. If you store it properly, it will still be good for a while, but how long depends on the item.

4. Expiration date tells you not to use it after this date. It could make you sick or, as in the case of baking powder or yeast, it will be ineffective.

Knowing how to interpret this information can save you money. On average, we waste about 14% of the food we buy each year; a family of four throws out about $600 worth every year. People are most wary of outdated milk, cottage cheese, mayonnaise, yogurt and eggs, all of which are usable after the date. Milk will be good for about a week, pasteurized cottage cheese one to two weeks, yogurt a week to 10 days; surprisingly, eggs will last three to five weeks after the sell-by date and refrigerated mayonnaise three to four months after opening.

In addition, eggs have a secret code for those in the know that tells you the pack date. This is a three-digit number representing the day of the year, starting with 001 and ending with 365. It is good way to find the freshest eggs in the store. If you're not a math whiz, all you need to know is that the ones with the highest numbers are the freshest.

We noticed while perusing three stores in Laguna Beach β€” Trader Joe's, Whole Foods Market and Ralphs β€” a consistency in their sell-by-dates. Managers told us that meats and dairy are discarded after one week (either donated or dumped), but they are still safe to eat. The following are some examples of the longevity of foods, bought refrigerated, once you get them home.

Beef, lamb and pork should be frozen within three to five days, poultry within one to two days, and luncheon meats and hot dogs within two weeks if unopened, five days if opened. Juices in cartons β€” three weeks unopened, seven to 10 days opened. Fish and shellfish remain good for one to two days.

Of shelf stable foods, cans last the longest. High-acid foods like tomatoes and pineapple last 12 to 18 months, low-acid foods two to five years. We even noticed baked beans with a sell-by date of 2019. We're pretty sure we wouldn't want to eat those unless we were desperate. Dry packaged foods generally have about a year, but cereals can have an outrageously long life, although taste may suffer, with sell-by dates of up to three years. Foods in glass jars like sauces have about a year.

It's always wise to check for a date. It's also your responsibility to handle food safely after purchase. There is a great website, which also has an iPhone app, called http://www.stilltasty.com, which provides long lists of how long food will keep.

ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at m_markowitz@cox.net.

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