Facts about the Date on Your Food Package

The dates provided on food products can be confusing. This confusion often leads to unnecessary food waste. Manufacturers provide dating to help consumers and retailers decide when food is of the best quality. To determine quality dates, manufacturers consider the length of time the food has been held during distribution and the holding temperature, the characteristics of the food, and the type of packaging used.

For example, fresh beef packaged in a reduced oxygen packaging system will stay fresh longer than meat not packaged this way. The quality may deteriorate after these dates, but the product is still safe to eat if handled properly. Open dating is used on most food, such as meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy. Closed or coded dating is a series of letters and/or numbers that typically appears on shelf-stable products like cans or boxes of food. Common phrases used are the following.

  • ‘Best if used by/before’ indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • ‘Sell by’ tells the store how long to display the product for inventory management. It is not a safety date. You should buy the product before the sell-by date, but you can still store it at home beyond that date as long as you follow safe storage procedures.
  • ‘Use by’ is the last date recommended for use of the product at peak quality. It is not a safety date.

For more information, check out this website: stilltasty.com.

Dating 101

Americans throw out billions of pounds of food every year due to confusion about food expiration date labeling practices, according to a recent report released by Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council. This study found that over 90 percent of Americans prematurely toss food because they misinterpret dates on food labels as indicators of food safety.

For most products, date shelf life is determined by the manufacturer and is based on food quality, not food safety. The lead author of the study concluded that a standardized date labeling system providing useful information to consumers is needed. Until a new system is in place, use the guide below to help decipher codes on your next grocery store trip:

  • A “Sell-by” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.
  • A “Best If Used By (or Before)” date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.
  • “Closed or coded dates” are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer.

It is also important that you keep track of your food inventory at home. The acronym FIFO (first in, first out) can help you remember oldest food should be stored in front and used first, while newer items should be placed in the back of your fridge or cabinets.

A helpful resource is StillTasty. Here you can type in a food item and determine how long it will stay safe and tasty. The website provides storage recommendations for the fridge and freezer. An app for the iPhone is available as well, and even alerts you when food should be tossed! A good rule of thumb is “4 day throw away”; after four days leftovers should be eaten, thrown out, or frozen.

Is It Still Good? Tossing Food That Has Expired

Deciding what food is safe to eat and what food should be tossed can be confusing, given the various terms used with dates printed on food containers. The USDA Foodmilk expiration
Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) defines each of the terms as follows:

  • A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.
  • A “Best if Used By (or Before)” date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.
  • “Closed or coded dates” are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer.

For safety concerns, these dates are more important for perishable foods like meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs. It is recommended to use food by the “use-by date.” Smelling food to determine if it is safe is not always effective. Many bacteria that cause foodborne illnesses cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted. Even if you think the food— such as lunch- meat—smells and looks fine, it is best not to consume after the “use-by” or expiration date. If you want to keep the food longer than that date, freeze it. Milk that has been properly refrigerated (40 degrees F) is safe to consume for one week past the “sell by” date.

For concerns about canned foods, high-acid foods (such as tomatoes or pineapple) will have the best quality if used within 12 to 18 months. Low-acid foods (such as meat, fish, or vegetables) will retain the best quality if used within 2 to 5 years. These rules apply only if the can remains in good condition and is stored in a cool, clean, dry place. Use the first in, first out (FIFO) method to be sure the oldest cans are used first. When putting away groceries, place the recently purchased items behind the existing food. It is recommended that home-canned foods be used within one year for best quality.

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