What Quality Assurance Do We Have for Food?

(The Monterey County Herald/TNS) -

Before we could board a cute little commuter plane from Alliance, Neb., to Denver, we had to wait out a summer thunderstorm that blew across the Plains. Trying to take my mind off the possibility that I would miss my connecting flight to California (I did), I listened to the TSA agent describe the history of this small airport.

“Alliance was a troop training base for parachute jumpers during World War II,” he said. “Our chief of police said his mom worked out here during that time … folding parachutes. Every once in a while, they’d take her up in a plane, and she’d have to jump out with one of the parachutes she’d folded. They called it ‘quality assurance.’”

What kind of quality assurance do we have for the food we eat? I took a look at the myriad of risk assessment and analyses data required of food producers by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). They might just prefer to jump out of an airplane.

Safety and quality are not always the same, however. Dates stamped on food packages, for example, help determine when a product is at its best quality, says the FSIS. They are not necessarily safety dates; a food might still be safe to eat after the date but the quality might not be as good.

I also learned that there is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States. Here are the ones you may see most often:

“Sell-By” tells stores how long to display a product for sale. Buy the product before this date and either consume, cook or freeze it immediately, says the USDA.

“Best if Used By (or Before)” indicates a product will have the best flavor and quality if consumed by this date.

“Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer.

Just like waiting out a storm before boarding a plane, we want our food to be safe as well as high quality. That’s why the old adage still holds: If in doubt, throw it out.


Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula.