A popular supermarket chain has quietly eliminated the "sell by" date on their ground beef.

This week I stopped into a local supermarket to grab some meat for a lasagna that I was cooking up and was surprised by what I discovered. Usually, I do the bulk of my shopping at Stop & Shop. However, for the rest of the week I'll find myself at Price Chopper, Hannaford, Adams and ShopRite filling in those last-minute or specialty items that I need for meals.

During a quick pop-in at the ShopRite in Poughkeepsie, I was searching for some lean ground beef when I noticed that all of the packages appeared to be out of date. As I scanned the labels, they all said August 8. Frustrated, I continued with the rest of my shopping, lamenting how I'd have to travel to yet another grocery store on my way home. Before leaving, I returned to the meat section to give it one last look and discovered why the dates on the packages were all "old."

Apparently, ShopRite no longer labels their ground beef with a "sell by" date. Instead, the date on the package is when the meat was "freshly ground on."

A. Boris

I scratched my head and wondered if there was another date somewhere on the package that I was missing, but soon realized that there wasn't. This made me ponder two important questions: Why would a grocery store do this? And is it even legal?

How do "sell by" dates work anyway?

To me, not seeing an expiration date was a bit concerning because without it, there's really no way to know just how fresh the meat is. Was the meat lying around for one day, seven days or two weeks before it was "freshly ground?" There's no real way to know.

I did some digging and Googled how grocery stores come up with their expiration dates (by the way, don't ever do this if you want to eat meat ever again). It turns out that the "sell by" date is pretty much just made up anyway. While I don't know the exact process ShopRite uses in their meat department, most butchers report that they receive fresh deliveries of beef and store it for up to two weeks before considering it "old."

From the many sources I researched, it appears that butcher departments determine the expiration dates on their packaging by the dates on the cuts of beef they make them from. However, they can also consider the look and smell of the meat to fine-tune these dates. Some grocery chain butches even report that if the meat is past its date and still looks and smells fine, they can extend that "sell by" date by several days.

So if the "sell by" date is kind of made up anyway, why bother eliminating it for a "freshly ground on" date instead?

Is this even legal?

You'll probably be as surprised as I was to learn that there is no law in New York saying that meat has to have any expiration date on it at all. In fact, there are only a few states in the country that requires such labeling. It turns out that butcher shops and grocery stores can sell any kind of meat they like without any indication on the package of how old it is. Crazy, right?

So why would ShopRite do this?

I can only imagine that the decision was made for marketing purposes.

Businesses usually only make changes to things like this for two reasons; to improve the shopping experience for customers, making them more loyal to the store or to save money.

No other grocery store in the Hudson Valley that I'm aware of has eliminated "sell by" dates. It's something that most shoppers base their purchases on, regardless of how arbitrary those dates actually are.

It's clear that there is no benefit in knowing less information about the meat you buy, so I'm assuming the elimination of a "sell by" date isn't to make customers happy, but to save money. If I'm in the store and see meat that's supposed to be "sold by" today I'm usually not excited about buying it. But if the same meat says it was "freshly ground" today it sounds like it's the freshest piece of meat on the shelf, so I'd have no problem putting it in my cart. It just makes sense.

After the publication of this story, ShopRite spokesperson, Karen O'Shea supplied us with the following statement.

Our experienced ShopRite butchers grind beef fresh several times each day in our stores. We believe using the ground date lets customers know just how fresh our ground beef is when we put it in the case for sale, which is always the same day it's ground. We also time stamp the packages of ground beef so customers know exactly what time the meat was packaged. We are making sure only the very freshest product is on our shelves and customers appreciate that. The ground beef is also removed from the sale case and discarded by 9 a.m. the next day if it's not sold on its ground date.

Bottom line

In reality, food safety experts say no matter how it's labeled, fresh meat is fine to buy and keep in your fridge for up to two days after purchase. Don't worry about how the meat looks. Depending on the oxygen level inside the package it could be bright red or grey. The color has nothing to do with its freshness. Instead, make sure to smell the meat. If it has any sort of "off" odor, toss it. Otherwise, just make sure to cook it to the proper temperature before consuming it.

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