It’d Be Nice If Starkist Could Make Up Its Mind As To When This Tuna Is Unsafe To Eat

We're confused.

We’re confused.

Consumerist reader J.L. is quite observant, and that’s a good thing — otherwise nine months from now he could’ve ended up eating tuna that was seven months past its “best by” date. See, he bought three of those “Lunch to Go” packs from Starkist, the kind with tuna, crackers, a spoon and a mint included. On the outside of the package was one best by date, but on the actual tuna it was a whole other story.

He writes:

I purchased several StarKist “Lunch to Go” products and the best by date on the package was 11/02/13, however once the product was opened I was able to see the best by date on the tuna pack which was 04/03/13.  I don’t understand how someone can sell a product that would appear to be good until November 2013, but only upon opening the package would a consumer see that the tuna had expired over six months ago.  I can only hope this was a mistake and not the norm, because I have no confidence the product I would be buying would contain tuna which wasn’t past the best by date.

He adds that he bought three of the packs, and while he didn’t notice the dates on the first one before eating it and disposing of the packaging, the two remaining had the same date situation. It’s worth noting that these are both “best by” dates and not “sell by” dates.

Some products do have confusing labels — for example, in New York city, there are often two sell by dates on the carton of milk because of the city’s dairy dating systems which require different expiration dates for milk sold in the city as opposed to outside of it.

Starkist notes on its FAQ site that any unopened and undamaged products, whether canned or in the flavor fresh pouches as this is, have a recommended shelf life of three years:

All unopened StarKist products have a recommended shelf life of up to three years, provided the product has been stored under normal conditions and the can or pouch appears normal and is not damaged. A “Best By” date is printed on all StarKist Tuna products for your convenience.

But since these aren’t labeled as to when they were packaged, that might not help. Or perhaps as the product is from Ecuador, the rules on best by dates are different there than in the U.S. In any case, it’s confusing for the average consumer, that’s for sure.

We can’t find any rules regarding differing best by dates on tuna, so if any readers can shed light on this situation, feel free to let us know at tips@consumerist.com. In the meantime, J.L. says he’s reached out to Starkist to see if there’s a logical explanation, and we have as well.

UPDATE #2 (scroll down for reader’s insight below): Starkist responded to our befuddlement, adding in another email exchange that although that pouch best by date looks like it says 04/03/13, the second 3 is really a 5, as confirmed by the manufacturer code that says it was packaged in 2012. Smudging!

In regards to the StarKist Lunch-to-Go kits, the best by date is determined by the component that has the shortest shelf-life. All StarKist pouches are marked with a best by date at time of production. Since tuna has a longer shelf-life than crackers, mayo, etc., when it gets packed into the “kits”, the entire package then gets a best by date. Therefore, the best by date is determined by the component with the shortest shelf-life (in this case the kit).

In regards to the pouch pictured in the article, we can assure you, based on the code below the Best By date, that this package does not expire until 04/03/15. This would make the kit expiration date (11/02/13) occur before the pouch expiration date (04/03/15).

As is mentioned in the updated portion of the article, it is true that the best by date is a quality parameter not a food safety issue. This date is to ensure our consumers enjoy their products at their freshest and best tasting point.

UPDATE: Here at Consumerist we are really lucky to have all kinds of readers. Specifically in this case, Mike, who’s a food scientist. He wrote in to try and explain why this Starkist packaging might be so confusing, noting that he doesn’t work directly in the fish industry, but has a background in heat treated foods. That means canned and other shelf stable items. Take it away, Mike!

These types of foods are processed in such a way that all bacteria are killed off so that no pathogens (germs that make you sick), spoilage organisms(germs that break down foods), or anaerobic bacteria (bacteria that can grow without oxygen, like in canned or shelf stable foods) can grow. Because these types of heat treated foods are essentially bacteria free, there really isn’t a “safety” issue associated with them, so a lot of companies put a “Best By” date on them, not for food safety reasons, but for quality reasons (flavor degradation, color degradation, etc).

In the case of the tuna, I guessing that the packaged meal product (with the mints, spoon, crackers, etc) pulls its components from a variety of sources, including it’s own inventory, with no worry as to the Best By date because, again, it isn’t a food safety issue, but a potential flavor/quality issue, so it isn’t closely monitored. The quality person in charge hasn’t created a raw material specification that mandates the tuna have a specific Best By date, so any product is grabbed.

StarKist isn’t guilty of anything other than creating a confusing experience for their customers by doing it this way, in my opinion. Again, there aren’t any food safety issues associated with this Best By date, and the product should be fine all the way out to the finished package date, even though that is past the tuna’s Best Buy date.

When it comes to perishable products, the Best By date plays a larger role as the shelf life of perishable products are in days or weeks, not in years, so I would worry more for the Best By dates of perishable products (like eggs, milk, fresh produce, uncured meats, etc) than I would for heat treated (shelf stable) products.