Myth: A Product Spoils on the Date Listed on the Package


Many people believe that when a meat package reaches the sell by, or use by, date printed on the package, the product is spoiled and unsafe. However, spoilage is a process that occurs over time so typically meat is not considered fresh one day and then spoiled the next day, based on a date on the package. Package dates are general guides that indicate the freshness of a product and also they signify when the product is best used by for quality purposes In addition, consumers are advised to use their senses to tell when a products is actually spoiled.1 For instance, spoiled meat will have an off odor and will often times look slimy or be sticky or tacky to the touch.

Color, on the other hand, is not a good indicator of spoilage or safety.2 Exposure to oxygen can change the color of meat, turning ground beef from red to brown for example, but that doesn’t indicate spoilage. Consumers should focus on the smell and texture characteristics as their best spoilage guides.

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Many factors are considered when establishing sell by, and use by, dates on a package, including the length of time and the temperature at which meat is held during distribution and offered for sale, the intrinsic characteristics of the food, and the type of packaging. All of these factors affect how long a product will be of optimum quality. Manufacturers and retailers use them to determine the date for which the product will be of best quality.

So should you throw out a meat product that is past the date on the package? Not necessarily. Food waste is a major issue as USDA estimates that 30 percent of food is wasted at retail and by consumers.3 People can take steps to reduce the possibility of spoilage by storing their meat and poultry properly in the coldest part of the refrigerator. Instead of simply throwing a product away, consumers must keep an eye for the signs of spoilage.

The government is also working on this issue, attempting to clarify the meaning of date labels by encouraging the use of “best if used by” labeling information to make clear that these date-labeling is more related to quality of the product rather than its safety.4

It’s also important to remember that a product that is freshly made, in some rare cases, can contain harmful bacteria. The most virulent bacteria don’t send any sensory signals like an off odor, so that’s why it’s always important to follow safe handling instructions on the package and cook meat products to recommended temperatures. Proper cooking is the best weapon against harmful bacteria.