Extension connection: Out with the old, in with the new

By ANGELA TREADAWAY / GUEST COLUMNIST

Dating can be delicate – it’s important to know when the timing is right. In this instance, I’m referring to food product dating, not courtship.

“Sell by, use by, purchase by, best-if-used-by” – how do consumers know which to follow?

To eliminate the guessing, the USDA offers some practical guidance for how to read food labels and stay healthy.

Generally, sell by dates are voluntary and not mandated by the government. Manufacturers provide these dates as a quality guide. One exception is baby formula and some baby foods, in which code requirements are linked to nutritional adequacy.

Date markings on labels are often confusing to the average consumer. It just takes an actual reading of each of these label markings to discern the difference.

Sell-by dates tell the store how long to offer a product. It is the store’s responsibility to pull these products off the shelf, but it may not always get done. Be diligent in buying these products before the sell-by date, the longer before, the better.

Best-if-used-by dates recommend best flavor or quality and do not refer to food safety. These are primarily for the consumer’s use after the purchase.

Use-by dates refer to the last date the manufacturer suggests is best for consumption.

So what about that chicken you plan to roast and serve? Think about timing. Be sure you buy fresh chicken before the sell-by date. After that, you can keep it in your refrigerator one to two days before cooking. When you use milk, be sure to take a look at the date. Usually milk keeps seven days after the date listed on the carton. Eggs in the shell and refrigerated can last a month. Unopened lunchmeat? In two weeks, you should throw it out, but deli meats sliced at the store should be eaten within one week.

Food becomes unsafe if mishandled when defrosting food at room temperature or letting raw meat juices contaminate vegetables.

Bacteria can then grow, causing food-borne illness. Stay safe by following the food safety guidelines: clean, separate, cook and chill.

If you have a question about meat, poultry or egg products, call the USDA Meat and Poultry hotline toll free at 1-888-674-6854 or visit http://www.fsis.usda.gov.