I bought a large bag of dried apricots at Costco. I was planning to enjoy them slowly over the next few months (the Best Before date is in mid 2023) but the label says: "Reseal and refrigerate after opening and consume within 21 days." I find that weird. Dried fruits usually keep for months and months. The only clue I've got is the ingredient list mentions 2% water. Any idea? Safe to consume after 21 days? 3 month? 6 months? Thank you so much!
I would be cautious but not overly so
The risks are low
First of all, dried fruit are not a breeding ground for pathogenic bacteria due to the low water content. They might spoil but, according to this USDA Q&A, you will notice if your fruits go bad and even if you accidentally eat one you will most likely be fine. So be cautious but unless you have a special health condition you shouldn't be putting yourself too much at risk.
Note that I found conflicting information but it seems that once they spoil they might start growing pathogenic bacteria. So just to be safe, still throw away spoiled dried fruits.
The take away is that (in almost all cases) as long as you store you dried fruits in a reasonable way (don't have them in water, very hot places, next to other raw food, etc...) they will spoil way before becoming unsafe to eat. And you can tell when something is spoiled. So you can trust your senses to know if they are good.
This comes with a few disclaimers I listed at the end of the post.
"Best before" is not a food safety indication in the US
Then it is worth noting that, in the USA:
[...] dates are not an indicator of the product’s safety and are not required by Federal law
This is an abstract from the official Food Safety and Inspection Service website where they explain that food dating is mostly to let you know when the manufacturer deems the food is of best quality, not when it's safe to eat (except for infant formula).
I know in your case this is a storage guideline and formulated a little bit differently to what is on the FSIS website. I'm not sure why this is the case but to my understanding that doesn't change the fact that is a quality and not safety indication.
2% Water should not matter
Looking on the internet, most sources agree that dried fruits still have a moisture content of 15-20%. But if you don't trust the internet (which is probably smart) I found a peer reviewed publication in the field of food science that does state:
Dried, [...] foods are those that generally do not contain more than 25% moisture.
This means that 2% extra moisture in your fruits is a negligible amount and they should conserve very similar to any other type of dried fruits you've already had.
Then why the instruction
It would seem that the instructions they give are actually very standard instructions when it comes to storing dried fruits. Here I couldn't find any scientific article but cross referenced 4-5 food blogs and website and all seem to agree. I found a guide that seems to summarize most of the information about storing dried food.
The issue once you have opened your hermetic bag of fruit is that your product becomes exposed to air moisture (also heat and light) which makes them more likely to spoil within 2-3 weeks (in the worst conditions from what I understood). This is probably why the instruction is written as is. Sealing the bag helps protect from air moisture and storing them in the fridge protects from the heat. And they finally give, in my opinion, a very conservative "best-before" date. At this point it is worth remembering that it is in the food company's interest to have you throw away your food sooner rather than later and have you buy the product again. I'm not saying that it is all there is to it but it should be kept in mind as a factor.
What to do
No one can tell you when your fruits will spoil, because it depends on a lot of factors. However, from what I've researched, you can expect your fruits to last longer than the packet instruction if you follow the storage recommendation.
However, there are simple steps you can take to help preserve them and try to avoid food waste as much as possible. Since this is a big pack, I would suggest that upon opening it you portion it and store it in smaller air-tight(ish) containers (old jam jars would do the trick) and eat them one by one. Store those in a dark, if possible cool place. This will protect your fruits from all the elements we have mentioned: air-tight lid does not allow the air moisture to enter the jar, a dark place prevents the light and somewhere cool prevents heat (yeah pretty straight forward, I know):
At this point if you want to give yourself best chances you could also sterilize your containers before putting your fruits in. This will help although I'm not sure how much. This is an easy process and I would definitely do it if I were to plan on storing the fruits for over 2-3 months.
Test, try and adapt
And finally there is no magic formula, you have to try. Circling back to the first advice: trust your nose, eyes and taste buds; they will tell you when your fruits spoil. And if they spoil too early (which we never know, it might happen) adapt your conservation method. Keeping them in the fridge or freezing them in small batches (important: defrost them in the fridge and eat them shortly after defrosting) are both simple options you could explore.
Disclaimer I : dry fruits are not pathogen proof
Note that this is true for dried fruits. As stated in the intro of this publication:
[The low level of water activity] prevents growth of many pathogens and lends to the microbiological safety of the [low moisture foods]
Meaning that bacteria that cause food poisoning can hardly grow on dried fruit (note that although they won't grow, they however can survive on the fruits if they were contaminated, for example at the factory or in your fridge if you stored your fruits next to raw chicken...).
This also mean that if you get enough water in the fruit they might grow those bacteria. So storing them well is still important
Disclaimer II: All I wrote is only valid for dried fruits
This approach of "spoil before being unsafe" does not work for all food categories. Milk, for example, will be different, as discussed in this post.
As far as food safety goes, you should listen to the package.
These are not just dried fruit. They are "partially rehydrated dried apricots". Once you begin to rehydrate (or if you don't fully dehydrated) fruit, you lose the full preservative effect of drying.
If you want to keep dried fruit outside of refrigeration for an extended period of time, get fruit that is fully dried, and not partially rehydrated.
The label tells us there is 2% added water to the already-dehydrated fruit. We don't know the residual water after drying. What we do know is that "someone" dehydrated the apricots until they were "dry enough," then this manufacturer added back water equal to 2% of the apricots. If there's 1 kilo of apricots, then 20g (20ml) of water has been rehydrated into the fruit.
Without more info, food safety rules tell us that have to assume that the added water brings it back to the threshold of being perishable, and demanding those labeling instructions.
It's entirely possible that these instructions are intended for quality control and not food safety. However, this is an agricultural product without preservatives where the label indicates refrigeration is required--so food safety rules would treat it as perishable as if it were fresh.
Whether you can still eat it and not get sick might be a different answer; however that question is off topic. This site limits food safety Q&A to government food safety regulations, not anecdotal experience.
I just got the following response from the manufacturer. Makes sense and aligns with the other answers!
Refrigeration is not necessary for standard dried apricots. However, our Apricots have a higher moisture content than standard.
Moisture content for standard apricots is below 25%. However, ours has 32-36% moisture content which may make it sensitive against spoilage microorganism. For that reason, you should keep it in refrigerator after opening in order to avoid any white mold occurrence on the surface of the product.