Making Sense of the Dates

man reading food label grocery storeAre you confused by the dates that appear on food labels? If so you are not alone! Product dating is not required by federal regulations with the exception of infant formula. Most companies do put a date or a code on the package, but unfortunately there is no universally accepted method used so it can get confusing.

Here are some terms that will help you determine if the food item is still safe.

  • “Sell by” means the store should sell the product by the date printed, but it can still safely be eaten after that date. Egg cartons have a “sell by” date.
  • “Best if used by” means the consumer should use the product by the date listed for best quality and flavor (not for safety reasons). Most canned goods have a “best if used by” date.
  • “Use by” or “Expires” means the product should be used by or frozen by the date listed. There will likely be a marked deterioration in product quality and safety after this date. Meats are an example of a food with a “use by” date.
  • “Packing code” is required on all cans. This enables the company to track when and where the food was manufactured. This code is not a “use by” date. Canned foods are safe indefinitely as long as they are not exposed to extreme temperatures (freezing or temperatures above 90°F). Any cans that are dented, rusted, or swollen should be discarded. You will find that high-acid foods (tomatoes, fruits) will keep their best quality for 12 to 18 months and low-acid canned foods (meats, vegetables) for 2 to 5 years.

Unravel the Meat Case Confusion

Cuts of meat have been labeled the same way since 1973. This 40-year-old labeling system used names like “Beef Shoulder Top Blade meat counterSteak Boneless Flat Iron.” Such terms left consumers confused, causing them to purchase the three or four cuts they already knew.

To help consumers better distinguish between the numerous cuts of meat, the Industry-Wide Cooperative Meat Identification Standards Committee (ICMISC) has approved the use of new meat labels.

Consumers will see labels with three lines describing the meat cut. On the first line, instead of “Beef Top Loin Steak Boneless,” a simpler, more common name is used such as “Strip Steak.” On the second line will be “Beef, boneless” to describe further cut characteristics. On the third line, a descriptor of the cooking method, like “Grill for best results,” will help consumers choose the right cut for the cooking method they want to use.

Beef and pork share common names for cuts, like Rib, Tenderloin, Sirloin, Arm, and Blade. Typical names used in the past for pork will be used on beef cuts and vice versa. You will see beef labeled as Country-Style Ribs or pork labeled as T-Bone, Ribeye, and Porterhouse.

The ICMISC program is voluntary for retailers and may already be in use, if retailers have made changes to their scales, which print the meat labels.

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