All kinds of dates can be found on food packaging and it can be very confusing to figure out what they all mean. We're here to help!
The first thing you should know is that with only one exception (baby formula) product dating is not required by Federal regulations at all. There are plenty of Federal regulations on HOW to date-label food, should a manufacturer chose to do so, but putting dates on is completely voluntary. That said, some states do require dairy products to be pulled from store shelves on the expiration date, which in effect makes date labeling mandatory for these products.
The other key thing to remember is that date labels mostly refer to the manufacturer's opinion regarding the quality of the product on that date, NOT the safety of consuming it or indicating spoilage. Stored properly, foods typically are still safe to eat long after the point where they have passed their prime for smell, taste, texture, or other organoleptic properties. For foods designed for long-term storage (some canned good, dehydrated, irradiated, or MRE-style foods), the date label may actually refer to the date when the packaging can begin deteriorating.
Typical Date Labels & their Meanings
- "Sell by": Directed to retailers selling to end consumers and designed to give the buyer ample time to use the product before it loses quality.
- “Freeze-By”: For consumers or retailers. The date when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality.
- "Expiration date": Most often seen on dairy and some bakery products indicating to retailers when the product should be pulled from the shelves.
- "Use by:" The exception to the rule, this one is about safety. In this case, the manufacturer is saying that in their opinion not to freeze, cook, or eat the product after this date, even if it has been stored correctly and looks and smells fine.
- "Born on": This is the date of manufacture and has been resurrected recently to date beer. Beer can go sub-par after three months.
- "Guaranteed fresh": This usually refers to bakery items. They will still be edible after the date, but will not be at peak freshness.
- "Packed on": Mostly used on canned or packaged goods. It may show up as a simple MMDDYY format, possible as a Julian date combining the year and the calendar day count out of 365 (December 2, 2020, might be 20335). Packed on dates are also often applied as a "Closed" or "coded" date (see below).
Types of Date Labeling
According to the USDA, two types of product dating may be shown on a product label.
"Open Dating" is a calendar date applied to a food product by the manufacturer or retailer. The calendar date provides consumers with information on the estimated time for which the product will be of the best quality and to help the store determine how long to display the product for sale. Open dating is found on most foods including meat, poultry, egg, and dairy products.
“Closed (Coded) Dating” is a code that consists of a series of letters and/or numbers applied by manufacturers to identify the date and time of production. This type of dating typically appears on shelf-stable products such as cans and boxes of food. These codes enable the tracking of products in interstate commerce and also enable manufacturers to rotate their stock and locate their products in the event of a recall.
Date Codes & Proper Storage
All date codes are based on the assumption of proper storage of the product throughout the supply chain from harvest/manufacture to final consumption. Different foods have different ideal storage conditions.
Milk should be kept at 38 degrees, fish at 32 degrees on the loading dock, in the car, on the kitchen counter, and they should not be outside of that temperature for more than four hours total. If a jug of milk sits for hours in a hot car on the way home from the store, or maybe the fridge at home isn't as cold as it should be, that milk is unlikely to get to its expiration date in peak condition.
Keeping canned and dry foods at 50 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit in a dry, dark place will maximize their shelf life.
Date Codes and Waste
USDA estimates that 30 percent of the food supply is lost or wasted at the retail and consumer levels. Some of this food waste comes from people throwing away perfectly wholesome food because of confusion about the meaning of dates displayed on the label.
To reduce confusion and wasted food, FSIS (USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service division) recommends that the “Best if Used By” be used. Foods not exhibiting signs of spoilage should be wholesome and may be sold, purchased, donated, and consumed beyond the labeled "Best if Used By" date.
Some Food Dating specifics
- Milk. Usually fine until a week after the "Sell By" or "Expiration" date.
- Eggs. OK for 3-5 weeks after you bring them home (assuming you bought them before the "sell by" date).Poultry and seafood. Cook or freeze this within a day or two.
- Beef and pork. Cook or freeze within three to five days.
- Canned goods. Highly acidic foods like tomato sauce can keep 18 months or more. Low-acid foods like canned green beans are probably risk-free for up to five years. Always discard cans that are dented, rusted, or swollen.
- Don't waste food! Most foods are perfectly healthy and fine to eat long after the date code printed on them.
- Store your food properly to ensure maximum storage time and highest quality.