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Is the Use-By Date on a Ham the Gospel Truth?

I have a vacuum-packed ham in my refrigerator that is past its use-by date. Can I still serve it for Easter?

You mean, will serving it on a religious holiday give you that little extra margin of safety?

The government safety folks would have you throw it out this instant. We are always grateful that they are keeping such careful watch over us all (and we mean that sincerely, even though we have been known to be a little sarcastic every once in a while).

Their job, of course, is to do everything possible to absolutely eradicate any possible danger from spoiled or contaminated food. Their approach is to develop a single set of rules and apply them to everyone and all foods and all situations. If everyone follows the same simple rules all the time, clearly, food safety will skyrocket.

It also clearly results in lots of good food being thrown away. We know what the government's rules are, but we exercise our own judgment in many cases. We also know more about food than many people, so we appreciate having simple rules that everyone can understand.

Having mused much too long, we have often found the sell-by/use-by dates on meat to be pretty accurate. In the very moist environment of a vacuum-packed ham wrapper, that date (which, in the case of ham, is often a long time after it reached the store) is probably pretty meaningful.

If it were just past the use-by date, we would unwrap the ham, wash it off, and smell and eyeball it pretty closely. If it smelled and looked absolutely fresh, we would probably cook it, and we would cook it thoroughly to the government-specified 160F (70C).

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