Use-By, Sell-By, Best-By Dates Don’t All Mean the Same Thing

I bought a carton of milk and it says, “Sell by July 25,” but today is July 28. Is the milk still OK to drink? Does the sell-by date mean the food is no longer safe to eat? What about the use-by or best-by date? I’m so confused!

For most foods, the date label is a manufacturer’s best guess as to how long the product will be at its peak quality.

Take heart. You’re not alone in your confusion. Most people aren’t sure what those date labels on food actually mean.

In fact, more than a third of consumers throw away food once the date passes because they mistakenly think the date is an indicator of food safety, according to a recent study by the Harvard University Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

But for most foods, the date label is a manufacturer’s best guess as to how long the product will be at its peak quality. With only a few exceptions, the majority of food products remain wholesome and safe to eat long past their expiration dates, the study authors said. Infant formula is the only food product that must carry product dating under current federal law.

Confusion regarding food label dates also leads to significant food waste, with the average American household spending more than $2,000 annually on wasted food, according to a study by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

So what do the dates mean?

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the:

  • “Best if Used By/Before” date indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or a safety date.
  • “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date.
  • “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except when used on infant formula.

However, there’s some good news: The issue of consumers misinterpreting label dates might soon be less confusing.

Two major food industry groups, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute, are asking their members to use only two date labels on their food products. The goal is for food manufactures to use only “Best if Used By/Before” and “Use By” on their packaging, with widespread voluntary adoption of the new labeling on most foods by summer 2018.

The “Best if Used By/Before” date would be used on nonperishable foods when the product might not taste or perform as expected but is safe to use or consume after the date listed. However, the “Use-By” date would be used on highly perishable foods that have a food safety concern over time. These products should be consumed by the date listed on the package and disposed of after that date, the groups said.

In the meantime, the USDA says most food products—excluding infant formula, for example—should still be safe and wholesome after the date passes if handled properly until the time spoilage is evident. Spoilage is indicated if the food has an odor or has mold, for example.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, OSU Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or turner.490@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Carolyn Gunther, state specialist in Community Nutrition for Ohio State University Extension.

Don’t Eat Uncooked Flour

Is it true that you can get sick from ingesting uncooked flour?

While many people are well aware of the warnings against eating foods with raw eggs for fear of contracting salmonella or other foodborne illnesses, fewer people are aware of the dangers of eating uncooked flour.

Caution: Eating raw flour can make you sick. Photo: Thinkstock.

It too can cause a mean case of foodborne illness.

In fact, eating raw dough or raw batter could make you sick, in part, because flour can contain bacteria that cause disease, according to a warning from the U. S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Recent incidents in the U.S. and Canada underscore the issue.

Between December 2015 and September 2016, some 63 people across the U.S. developed an E. coli infection after eating raw flour. And in Canada, 30 people became sick between November 2016 and April 2017 after eating raw or uncooked flour contaminated with E. coli, according to published reports.

What is the cause of the problem?

“Flour is derived from a grain that comes directly from the field and typically is not treated to kill bacteria,” Leslie Smoot, a senior FDA advisor said in a written statement. “So if an animal heeds the call of nature in the field, bacteria from the animal waste could contaminate the grain, which is then harvested and milled into flour.”

The issue was significant enough that the FDA issued a warning to consumers last summer to not eat any raw dough. Consumer Reports and FDA lists the following ways to avoid ingesting uncooked flour:

  • Do not eat any raw cookie dough, cake mix, batter, or any other raw dough or batter product that is supposed to be cooked or baked.
  • Follow package directions for cooking products containing flour at proper temperatures and for specified times.
  • Avoid giving homemade modeling clay, playdough, papier-mâché or ornaments with flour as the main ingredient to young children who may, inadvertently, put these objects in their mouths.
  • Keep raw foods separate from other foods while preparing them to prevent any contamination that may be present from spreading. Be aware that flour may spread easily due to its powdery nature.
  • Make sure you throw out any old flour and thoroughly wash out the container or bin that you use to store flour in, before adding in a new bag of flour.
  • Follow label directions to chill products containing raw dough promptly after purchase until baked.

While most of these tips may sound intuitive, even the smallest of precautions such as washing your hands after handling any uncooked flour or any raw dough or batter, can make a huge difference in helping you prevent contracting a foodborne illness.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, OSU Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or turner.490@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Shari Gallup, Family and Consumer Sciences Educator for Ohio State University Extension

Reusable Water Bottles Need to Be Washed Between Uses

I heard recently that reusable water bottles can sometimes be a hotbed of germs. Is that true?

Yes, at least according to a recent analysis from Treadmill Reviews that found that unwashed reusable water bottles could harbor significantly high levels of bacteria that are harmful to humans.

Wash reusable water bottles after each use to avoid harmful bacteria.

In fact, the report goes as far as to say that “drinking from the average refillable bottle can be many times worse than licking your dog’s toy.” According to the study, the average athlete’s water bottle has 313,499 colony-forming units, or CFUs, of bacteria per square centimeter while the average pet toy has 2,937 CFUs.

Yuck.

The study, which was performed by EmLab P&K, a New Jersey-based environmental testing firm, analyzed 12 types of water bottles and found differing amounts of CFUs based on the design of the bottle.

For example, slide-top bottles harbored 933,340 CFUs, compared to squeeze-top bottles at 161,971 CFUs and screw-top bottles at 159,060 CFUs. The bottle type that harbored the fewest bacteria was the kind with a straw top, which measured 25.4 CFUs.

But, that doesn’t mean you should toss your reusable water bottles and opt exclusively for store-bottled water instead. The report offers the following options for consumers to still get their required daily water intake while lessening their chances to encounter harmful bacteria and limiting their consumption of single-use containers:

  • After every use, wash your bottle in hot water with a teaspoon of unscented dish soap added. Soak it for a few minutes, rinse it well using warm water, and allow it to dry completely before the next use.
  • Occasionally use a weak bleach solution of 1 tablespoon of bleach per quart of water to sanitize the bottle.
  • Avoid letting your water bottle sit half full for long periods in between use.
  • Opt for using a straw-top water bottle. In the study, these types of bottles were found to have a lower prevalence of bacteria.
  • Opt for a stainless steel bottle.
  • Try to find a water bottle that doesn’t contain crevices and harder-to-clean spots. This will lessen the potential for harboring harmful bacteria, the study says.

Whatever you decide to do with your water bottle, it is important to remember that staying hydrated is a key part of staying healthy. Consuming an adequate amount of fluids helps to maintain body functions, including those of your heart, brain and muscles. Fluids also serve to carry nutrients to your cells, keep your temperature normal, digest food, flush bacteria from your bladder and prevent constipation.

Healthy people should get 30 to 50 ounces of water per day, which translates to about 4 to 6 cups or 1 to 1.5 liters, according to recommendations from doctors at Harvard Medical School. In addition to water, milk is also a good option to help in hydration.

So clean those water bottles and keep up your daily fluid intake. Your body will thank you later.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, OSU Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or turner.490@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Carol Smathers, field specialist in Youth Nutrition and Wellness for Ohio State University Extension.

Eating Healthy at the Amusement Park

My friends and I are planning to spend the day at an amusement park. Do you have any tips on how to avoid the sugar and calorie overload and eat as healthy as possible while there?

Amusement parks can still be a fun, wonderful way to enjoy a summer day without overindulging in the sugary, deep-fried, calorie-laden foods that the parks are traditionally known for.

Eating healthy at the amusement park is possible.

Despite the temptation to feast on mounds of cotton candy, deep-fried candy bars, funnel cakes, snow cones, chili cheese fries and, of course, those infamous giant turkey legs, you can have nutritious foods and drinks at the park that taste good and are better for your health.

One of the best ways to eat healthy at the park is to pack some nutritious meals to bring with you. While many amusement parks won’t let you bring in outside food, you can pack a cooler with ice in your car and fill it with nutritious, portable foods that you can eat throughout the day. Some ideas for the cooler include fruit, nuts, yogurt, sandwiches, and veggies such as carrots and celery sticks, among others.

If you’d prefer to eat at the park, below are some suggestions for healthy food choices from Eatinghealthy.org and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics:

  • Instead of hot dogs, hamburgers and French fries, opt for something like a grilled chicken breast with a side salad or fruits and vegetables.
  • Avoid super-sized sodas, lemonades and other sugary drinks. Choose fat-free or low-fat milk or chocolate milk instead or a nice cold glass of water.
  • If you are looking for something sweet, try a candy apple. While they do pack about 300 calories each, the fiber in the apple will help keep you full.
  • Meat and vegetable kabobs allow you to indulge in the food-on-a-stick tradition of amusement park foods without the extra sugar and calories.
  • Corn on the cob is also a good option, preferably without the mounds of butter.

Another thing to remember about spending the day at an amusement park – you need to stay hydrated. It’s important that you drink plenty of fluids to avoid becoming dehydrated. One tip is to bring a water bottle with you and drink it frequently throughout the day. If you don’t want to carry it around with you, another option is to request a cup of ice water from any food vendor at the park and drink it in between rides.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, OSU Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or turner.490@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Irene Hatsu, state specialist in food security for Ohio State University Extension.

Chow Line: Safe, Healthier Options for Picnics

I’m planning to pack a picnic for our 4th of July celebration in the park. To save time, can I partially cook the ribs at home and finish cooking them later on the grill during the picnic?

While it’s understandable that you’d want to save time by partially cooking your meats before heading to the park, doing so could result in a case of foodborne illness. This is because partial cooking does not destroy bacteria that can cause illness. The added heat during partial cooking can allow these bacteria to grow to unsafe levels. A safer option is to fully cook the meats to a safe internal temperature on the grill at the picnic.

You should also use a meat thermometer to judge the doneness of the meat — don’t rely on the color of the food as an indicator of whether it is done. Beef and pork should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees, while chicken should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees.

With July being designated as National Picnic Month, now is a good time to familiarize yourself with some other food safety tips to ensure you, your family and friends can enjoy months of summer picnics and barbecues without the potential for foodborne illnesses such as Salmonella or Listeria.

For example, did you know that it is better to store your cooler in the air-conditioned car as you drive to the park or beach for your picnic rather than placing it in a hot trunk? Or if you plan to buy takeout foods such as fried chicken for your picnic, you need to eat the food within two hours of purchase to avoid developing foodborne illness?

Or if you plan to make potato, egg or pasta salad, you should cool the potatoes, eggs or pasta and other ingredients to refrigerator temperature (below 40 degrees) before assembling? This prevents the salad from going into the temperature “danger zone” —between 40 and 140 degrees — where bacteria multiply rapidly during prep or storage.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service offer these other tips for safe, healthy picnics and barbecues:

  • Always use an insulated cooler with a cold source, such as ice, frozen gel packs or frozen foods.
  • Pack cold food first, right from the refrigerator. Keep food cold until ready to cook.
  • Cold salads, such as potato, chicken or pasta, should be kept cold until serving.
  • Plan to keep hot foods hot with a thermos or insulated dish.
  • Pack uncooked meat, poultry and seafood separately from all ready-to-eat foods, such as beverages, fruits and side dishes. A separate cooler for uncooked meats is an even better idea!
  • Avoid produce that’s bruised or damaged.
  • When choosing fresh-cut produce, such as half a melon or bagged mixed greens, pick only items that are refrigerated or surrounded by ice.
  • Store perishable produce, including berries, lettuce, herbs and mushrooms, as well as all cut or peeled produce, at 40 degrees or below.
  • Use a fresh, clean plate for serving cooked food. Don’t let raw meat juices touch other food.
  • Place leftovers promptly in the cooler and store it in the shade to stay cool. Discard any perishable food left out for more than two hours.

Remember, although most perishable foods are safe to be left out for two hours, in hot weather, especially in temperatures above 90 degrees, food should not sit out for more than an hour. And while this may seem intuitive, it’s important that you wash your hands, your work area and all utensils before, during and after preparing food.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, OSU Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or turner.490@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Kate Shumaker, an Ohio State University Extension educator and registered dietitian.