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Drinking the pharoah's orange juice

May 9, 2008 |  8:00 am

Oj500

Oh BLECH! BLECH! BLECH!

That was my reaction recently when I saw the sell-by date on some juice I had grabbed from a mini-refrigerator perched on a cabinet near my desk. The expiration date was March 2005. We’re not meticulous housekeepers.

The juice tasted OK, but it looked a little brown, especially toward the bottom, where it was really brown, which is what prompted me to look at the label. As I contemplated the grisly possibilities of what might await me, I wondered what the sell-by date on food really means. At what point is something too old to eat? And more to the point, can a person die from drinking really, really old orange juice?

Turns out, the shelf life of Tree Top products is determined by the level of vitamin C in the product that persists over time, says Kevin Rackham, director of quality assurance/food safety at Tree Top. Over time, the level of vitamin C in the product will change, and the nutritional labeling on the product will no longer be accurate.

"We've determined this to be 12 months," he reports in an email forwarded by Laura Prisc, Tree Top's corporate communications manager. "So the shelf life on our juices and sauces is 12 months. However, there is no safety concern with eating apple sauce or drinking any of our juices after that 'best by' or 'sell by' date, but the level of vitamin C in the product will be lower."

Also, he says, the color may change over time, due to temperature and light exposure, but, again, the product is safe. The exception to this is if the packaging has been breached or there is visible "bloating" of the container. In those cases, it's best to steer clear of the product.

This got me thinking about other food items, and how long they last, which brought me to the U.S. Department of Agriculture web site, where there's all sorts of helpful information about food storage.

For example, did you know that you can keep canned ham in your pantry for two years, or that canned meat and poultry will last two to five years?

Click here for more information about how long you can keep food.

--Janet Cromley

Photo: Larsz (via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

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