More than 90 percent of Americans throw out food -- even a smoked food product like sausage -- before they have to, says Mary MacVean, writing for the "Los Angeles Times" in September, 2013. Many consumers, she says, are confused as to what product "use-by" and "sell-by" labeling means. Many Americans believe the sell-by, best-by or use-by date on their food marks the day it's no longer safe to eat it; however, this isn't the case at all.
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What Does "Sell By" Mean?
Your smoked sausage's sell-by date isn't an expiration date; it's simply the manufacturer's recommendation for the last day a store should offer the product for sale to the consumer. This date reflects the manufacturer's determination that if you buy the sausage that day, it remains at peak quality for a reasonable amount of time afterwards, since it's not assumed you'll eat it the same day you purchase it. So, you can certainly eat smoked sausage past its labeled sell-by date. Furthermore, your product is at peak quality for a few days past this date, assuming you store it properly.
What Do "Best By" and "Use By" Mean?
Other dates that commonly appear on smoked sausage and other food labels are a "best-by" or "best-if-used-by" date and a "use-by" date. The use-by date reflects the manufacturer's estimate of the last day the product is at peak quality. The "best" designation is a slightly looser estimate of when peak quality is passed. Neither of these dates represents a true expiration date with any practical bearing on the safety or suitability for consumption of the food. With proper handling and storage, and without sensory evidence to the contrary, smoked sausage may be eaten past these dates.
How Do You Know It's No Good?
If your smoked sausage is bad and no longer safe to eat, it should be obvious. The first sign of spoiled meat is usually a foul odor. Smell the sausage, and if it's offensive, toss it. The meat may also become discolored, mushier or slimy. If you notice any such changes, throw the sausage away. If you prepare it and it tastes bad, this may also indicate spoilage, so find something else to eat. These determinations should be made independent of any date marked on the sausage's packaging; just as sausage can be safe for consumption after the date, it can also go bad before that date with improper handling or contamination.
How Does Sausage Go Bad?
Contamination of smoked sausage can occur where it's produced if the facility isn't careful. Also, the sausage is typically held at the site of production, transported to a warehouse, held again, then transported to a store and held again. At any point, your sausage may be improperly handled or stored. Once you purchase sausage, don't leave it out at room temperature for more than two hours or above 90 degrees Fahrenheit for more than one hour. Although the sell-by date isn't an expiration date, smoked sausage doesn't "live" forever. Generally, use it within two weeks before the package is opened or one week after opening. Frozen sausage stays safe practically indefinitely, although the USDA recommends using it within one to two months for quality reasons.