DEAR SUN SPOTS: Recently, WGME Channel 13 had information on how long people can keep cans of food. What is the difference between “use by” and “best by”? When should items be thrown out? I did not get all the information. Could you please print it? I’m sure there are people besides me who could use it.

— Walter, Chesterville

ANSWER: I often wondered this myself! That informational spotlight ran on WGME 13 on Feb. 5. Here is the link:

In a nutshell, you don’t need to toss perfectly good canned food away because the expire-by date is past.

Dr. Michele Pfannenstiel, president and CEO of Dirigo Food Safety, who was quoted on that news spot, has been working in the food safety industry since she served in the U.S. Army. She advises to think twice before disposing of canned goods based on the “best-by” dates. These dates are merely recommended by specific food manufacturers based on the product’s optimum qualities such as color, consistency, smell and taste.

In reality, canned goods can last for years if they are stored properly. A cool, dark, dry place is always best, such as a kitchen cupboard or pantry away from heat sources or in a dry basement. Back in the day, folks had fruit cellars where home-canned foods could be kept for years.

Of course, you don’t want to eat anything out of a rusty, leaking, or swollen can, but products in dented cans are absolutely fine.

The news spot you viewed also said Congresswoman Chellie Pingree is involved with clarifying the confusion about expire-by dates and labeling of canned goods. Pingree will be reintroducing the 2016 “Food Date Labeling Act,” this year, working toward standardizing labels because it’s too confusing when different manufacturers have so many different ways to label canned and jarred food.

Currently, the USDA and FDA have no standard for canned food labels. The only item with regulated dating is baby formula. Pingree wants to have canning companies label their products with a specific “use-by” date to clarify how long the food in a can or jar will last.

Hopefully, the new legislation will reduce waste. When you throw away a can of perfectly good food, you’re also throwing away the time and energy involved in growing the food and in the transportation to get the food to its destination. In the news spotlight, Pingree called it, “a real environmental issue.” She hopes the legislation will help reduce the amount of wasted foods and open consumers’ eyes when they’re shopping and when cleaning out their cupboards.

I’d also like to add that according to Science Daily (, a product’s use-by date on the label is aimed at consumers as a directive of the date by which the product should be eaten; mostly because of quality, not because the item will necessarily make you sick if eaten after that date. However after the use-by date, product quality is likely to go down much faster, and safety could be lessened.

The best-by date is a suggestion to the consumer of when the product should be consumed to assure ideal quality.

I hope this answers all your questions! Use good old-fashioned common sense and you should be fine!

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