Understanding Food Dates
Many of us waste food, and more importantly our money, by misunderstanding the dates printed on the food we buy. Here is some useful information we hope will help the next time you reach for the milk.
What types of food are dated?
“Open” dating is found primarily on perishable foods such as meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products. “Closed” or “coded” dating might appear on shelf-stable products such as cans and boxes of food.
Types of Dates
- A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires. The manufacturer assumes it will be stored in an individual’s home for several days after purchase. A “sell by” date is most commonly found on dairy items and other refrigerated foods.
- A “Best if Used By (or Before)” date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date. Manufacturers use this date to indicate the last date by which the highest quality of the particular product is guaranteed. After this date, the product is still safe to consume but may not be at its highest quality in terms of nutrition and taste. For example, a box of cold cereal with a “best if used by date 6/25/11” is still safe to eat for several months afterward. However, it may not taste as fresh and may be slightly stale.
- A “Use-By” date is the last day that the manufacturer vouches for the product’s quality and last date recommended for use of the product at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product. You may eat the food after the use by date, but it likely is not going to be at peak quality.
- “Closed or coded” dates are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer. Indicates the date the product was originally packaged but does not indicate the time by which the product should be consumed.
- “Expiration” date is used with baby food and infant formula. After this date the nutritional quality of the food cannot be ensured. Because baby food and infant formula are the primary source of nutrition for infants, a food of lower nutritional quality is harmful to their growth and development. Therefore all baby food and infant formula must be discarded on their expiration date. According to the Health Department, it is illegal to sell and distribute baby food items after the expiration date.
Safety After Date Expires
Except for “use-by” dates, product dates don’t always pertain to home storage and use after purchase. “Use-by” dates usually refer to best quality and are not safety dates. Even if the date expires during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality if handled properly. See the accompanying refrigerator charts for storage times of dated products. If product has a “use-by” date, follow that date. If product has a “sell-by” date or no date, cook or freeze the product according to the times on the chart below.
Foods can develop an off odor, flavor or appearance due to spoilage bacteria. If a food has developed such characteristics, you should not use it for quality reasons.
If foods are mishandled, however, foodborne bacteria can grow and, if pathogens are present, cause foodborne illness — before or after the date on the package. For example, if hot dogs are taken to a picnic and left out several hours, they will not be safe if used thereafter, even if the date hasn’t expired.
Other examples of potential mishandling are products that have been: defrosted at room temperature more than two hours; cross contaminated; or handled by people who don’t practice good sanitation. Make sure to follow the handling and preparation instructions on the label to ensure top quality and safety.
Since product dates aren’t a guide for safe use of a product, how long can the consumer store the food and still use it at top quality? Follow these tips:
- Purchase the product before the date expires.
- If perishable, take the food home immediately after purchase and refrigerate it promptly. Freeze it if you can’t use it within times recommended on chart.
- Once a perishable product is frozen, it doesn’t matter if the date expires because foods kept frozen continuously are safe indefinitely.
- Follow handling recommendations on product.