Clearing Up the Confusion Around Date Labels on Packaged Foods

No doubt, you’ve noticed that some food products come with dates and codes printed on them. And who isn’t noticing this more now as food costs are skyrocketing?

Do those codes and dates mean the item must be consumed by that date or just sold by that date?

What about canned or packaged goods that show only a date like “2.01.21”? Does that mean you could end up in the emergency room if you consume it a month later in March?

And then there are other food products that don’t seem to have any date at all — at least we sure can’t find any reference to one. Confusing, isn’t it?

While most food processors date and code their products and decide what their codes mean, it is the Food and Drug Administration that mandates dating, which is surprisingly limited.

Under federal law, only infant formula and baby food are required to have product dating. Everything else is voluntary on the part of food manufacturers and processors.

Meat, poultry and egg products fall under the Food Safety and Inspection Service, and dates may be voluntarily created as long as they are truthful and not misleading.

Phrases like “Best Before,” “Better if Used Before” or “Best if Used By” tell you how long the product will retain its best flavor and highest quality. You will find these phrases on products such as baked goods, cereals, snacks and some canned foods. The food is still safe to eat after this date but may have changed somewhat in taste or texture.

Perplexed? Unsure? Open it! Give it the smell test and a good visual test. I can attest to the fact that a can of nonfat evaporated milk that is three years past its “Best By” date will not smell sour. But it may be golden in color (think school bus) and curiously separated, leaving liquid on top and chunky solids beneath. Get the picture? “Expiration,” “Use By” or “Use Before” are phrases that appear on yogurt, eggs and other foods that require refrigeration. Other dating terms are guidelines, but these usually mean what they say. If you haven’t used the product by this date, toss it out.

“Guaranteed fresh.” This date is often used for perishable baked goods. Beyond this date, freshness is no longer guaranteed, although the product may still be edible and easily refreshed with a few minutes in a hot oven.

Some products bear a “pack date,” indicating when it was packaged, although this date is often encrypted so that only manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers can read it.

The “Sell By” date is usually found on highly perishable foods such as meat, milk and bread. This date guides store clerks who handle the rotation of shelf stock so they know which item to sell first. This date is determined to allow time for the product to be stored and used at home. The product is still safe and wholesome past this date if handled properly until spoilage is evident — when it looks more like a science fair project than tonight’s dinner.

For example, milk will usually be good for at least a week beyond its “Sell By” date if properly refrigerated. Meat that has reached its “Sell By” date should be either consumed or frozen within 24 hours.

The pack date on some products, such as eggs, is shown by a 3-digit Julian date (001 through 365) found on the short side of the carton. Jan. 1 is number 001, and Dec. 31 is number 365, ignoring leap year.

Eggs are safe to be consumed four to five weeks beyond that date, as long as they are kept refrigerated.

The point in all of this is that the fresher your food, the better it is. And for the most part, processors want to assure customers that their products will remain at peak quality for certain periods of time because they want to keep your business — and having a good reputation for freshness goes a long way toward making that happen.

Here’s the bottom line: Use your common sense. Practice diligence when purchasing, storing and using up food. And never stop looking for reasonable ways to make food last longer and stretch further.

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Mary Hunt