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Good Question: How Important Are Expiration Dates?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- The ground beef says "use or freeze by," the cookies say "best by," and the cheese says "sell by." Expiration dates are on almost every product we buy at the grocery store.

But how important are they? asked Deb Lind from Eden Prairie.

Dave Read, the Agriculture Department's assistant director of dairy and food inspection, said the expiration dates are an estimate of the manufacturer's quality date.

"A manufacturer doesn't want a food sold past the date, because they're concerned about their reputation," Read said.

It's more of an indicator of quality than an indicator of safety.

In Minnesota, it's the law that food with a shelf life shorter than 90 days must have a sell by date on the packaging.

The rules are strict with eggs and milk. The date is applied when those products are bottled or put in cartons. They get 30 days to be on sale, but milk is usually good seven to 10 days after that date, Read said.

Eggs can last three to five weeks after the sell-by date, according to the USDA.

So you almost never have to throw out a product when it hits its expiration date. The USDA has a chart showing how long you can keep products refrigerated after your purchase.

Anything can be frozen indefinitely and still be safe, according to the USDA.

Poultry and ground meat are only good about one or two days after purchase, if kept in a refrigerator. Beef, veal, pork and lamb are good three to five days in the fridge.

Processed items sealed at a plant can last some time. Hard or dry sausages are good six weeks in the pantry, three weeks in the fridge. Bacon is good two weeks unopened, seven days after opening. Hot dogs can keep two weeks in the fridge unopened, one week open, the USDA says.

Dry goods and canned items can be good unopened for years after their expiration date. Even opened, those items can often last one year if stored in a cool, dry location, the government says.

If you use the smell test – congratulate yourself. It's the same technique safety regulators suggest.

"Foods can develop an off odor, flavor or appearance due to spoilage bacteria," the USDA says. "If a food has developed such characteristics, you should not use it for quality reasons."

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