Making Sense Out of Food Expiration Dates

Many times, while shopping in America we are faced with confusing dates on packaged food labels. This article helps make sense out of the confusion. Also included are some helpful hints on keeping food fresh and safe to eat.

Have you ever picked up a can of fruit or vegetables in the grocery store and turned it over trying to find the expiration date only to find that there was none? Sometimes there are other dates such as “Best if used by 5-4”. What could that mean? Perhaps May, 2004?

Consumer Reports advises that except for poultry, some baby food, and infant formula the U.S. Federal government does not require product dating on food. A little more than 20 American states mandate food dating, but what are the dates and what do they mean?

Use by, Best if used by, or a Quality Assurance date:

These dates do not imply that the food is unsafe to eat after the listed date. The date merely refers to flavor and quality. To receive the maximum amount of nutrients and peak flavor of this product it should be consumed prior to the date shown. A good example would be cereal. A box of cereal sitting in the cupboard for a lengthy period of time will not taste as fresh as a newly packaged one, nor will it be as nutritious.

Sell by or Pull date:

These dates are placed on products to suggest to the retailer the need of removing the items from the sales floor after the listed date. Another benefit of these dates it to advise store staff to move the item to the front of the shelf months before the date and weeks before the date to sell at a discounted price.

A sell by date does not indicate the food automatically “goes bad” on that date. Milk, for example would retain its flavor and freshness for approximately one week after the date, and chicken for one or two days.

Pack or Package Date:

This is a date placed on fresh meats and produce to indicate the date of packaging. This does not guarantee safety or freshness.

Born On date:

This is a practice initiated by Anheuser-Busch. Anheuser-Busch claims their beer tastes best within 110 days of the “Born on” date.

Coded date:

This is a series of letters, numbers, or both to indicate to the manufacturer which batches the foods originated in. This is useful in case of a recall in tracking down the product. Sometimes food products are shipped across many states and this code aids in locating the entire batch.

Use by or an Expiration date:

Food should not be consumed after this date. It should be considered unsafe and discarded.

Freshness date:

This date is generally used on baked goods. It is similar to the “best if used by” description in that the bread does not automatically “go bad” on the date listed, but it may not retain its softness and freshness.

Tips to maintain freshness in your kitchen:

  • Check the dates on baking mixes. The dehydrated fats in the packages can go bad.
  • Take a marker and mark the dates of your purchase on your cans. Fruit juices, peppers, sauerkraut, green beans, and tomato products should be eaten within six months. Most other can goods can last a year or so.
  • Check the appearance and smell of canned goods when you open them. If it does not smell or look right, throw it out.
  • Keep your canned foods at a temperature of no higher than 65 degrees F. Higher temperatures reduce the shelf life.
  • Refrigerate all leftover foods in sealed containers and eat within three days
  • Once you have opened the product forget the date on the package. It now needs to be refrigerated.
  • Do not purchase cans that are bulging, oozing or dented, as these can be signs of contamination
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  1. Great article, and very informative.
    I haven’t heard of “born on date” or coded date before.
    Thank you for the info, Judy.

  2. Interesting and informative. Thank you very much for writing.

  3. Thank you so much Icy and Valli.

  4. “Use by” is in there twice. Which is the right one?

  5. Rick B,if not included with “best” used by I would use the last category, as my criteria. Thank you so much for pointing this out to me.

  6. Awww feck I’m stuck on the US interwebs again aren’t I. I swear in 10 years time you people will be needing instructions on how to breathe.

  7. Great points made here…thanks for this!

  8. Nice. Good one.

  9. What about the “Do not eat after midnight” label. Like garlic tastes worse after midnight. Seriously, it does!

  10. I was just thinking yesterday that I would have to find out how to read the code on Canadian cans. Thanks for posting this one.

  11. Thanks everyone for your encouragement. Darlene, are labels confusing in Canada too? Seriously, in the U.S. its like they do not want us to know how long products are good.

  12. RE #6 by Erick the red
    Judging by the “feck” I guess we can safely assume that you come from the land of BLAAH foods over the water. We may be trying to figure out how to breath, but our menus consist of more than flour & lard, so we have to know what we are reading. Flour & lard do not expire! Get a life.

  13. By the way, great article!!!! Never mind the bone heads.

  14. Ieathealthy,thank you for your comments. I doubt that Erick will be back to read it, however. He did not like the article the first time, and is probably busy trying to write one on breathing. Lol

    I like your tag. Eating healthy is a challenge.

  15. Maybe a silly ? but does lard really not expire? That is what I typed into my search engine and it brought me here.

  16. Sometimes, I think anything edible would go bad if kept long enough. If not bad, at least stale, and lose some of its nutritional value and taste.

  17. I like it a lot. I get them confused usually but never having prior knowledge was the reason for that. I’ll know what to do when I see an expired milk now.

  18. Great article Judy, I have wondered about some of these things before. Thanks for the great info!

    Best wishes.

    Sincerely,

    -Liane Schmidt.

  19. Thank you for reading and commenting, Lianne.

  20. For Canadian readers of Judy’s article:

    The rules in Canada are a little different then the USA. You’ll never see an expiry date on any food in Canada unless its been imported from the states. Canada uses two dates on its food. First a ‘best before’ date. The industry calls it a durable life date. This date is the same as what Judy outlined for the USA’s ‘best if used by’ or ‘Quality Assurance’ dates. In Canada, these dates are mandatory on foods that have a shelf life of less than 90 days after packaging. For products with a longer shelf life (like can goods), a best before date is optional. The only other date you’ll see on Canadian food is the ‘packaged on’ date. Usually only used on meat products, where the date must indicate by law the day the meat was packaged. Can also be seen on other perishable foods.

    Expiry date in Canada is used only for drugs and natural health products to indicate the shelf life and stability of the product. You will not see it on Canadian packaged food.

    Hope this helps. :)

  21. TJ, your comment is very much appreciated. Your kind explanation is helpful.

  22. The article you chose was well written and well researched. I enjoyed reading that as well as the comments from our Canadian neighbor, Judy Sheldon-Walker.

  23. Ella H, I am not sure I understand your comment, because I am Judy Sheldon-Walker (Walker is my married name) and I am from Michigan. I am a little confused. But that’s normal for me at times. lol

    Thank you, Ella for reading and commenting.

  24. Does anyone here know of a Web Site I can go to and get code dates for can goods?
    I also have a lot of Winn Dixie Thrifty Maid products I would like to check so if anyone has a site for those codes I would like them also.

    Thank you so much, Bonnie Marie

  25. In Canada, what is the policy of the Health & Safety Board about reducing products. I was under the impression that you should reduce an item 2 days BEFORE the best before date, and it should be garbaged after the best before date. Am I wrong?

  26. Cathy, TJ, (Feb 25, 2008) one of the commenters above left a detailed explanation on Canadian dates. The data I researched was about American food expiration dates. Of course the general information applies to all food.

    Thanks so much for reading and leaving your comment. I hope her explanation will benefit you.

  27. I just purchased a box of Post Grapenuts Cereal at a

    Renton,”Fairwood “Washington Safeway Store with the pull date

    “best if used by April 2007″ today is September 14,2010.

  28. Cricket, I would take the box of cereal and the receipt back to the store for a refund.

  29. nice info…………… Does anyone here know of a Web Site I can go to and get code dates for can goods?

  30. thank u so much nice information

  31. Techzarinfo try this one: http://amsu.cira.colostate.edu/julian.html

    Dheepan, thanks for reading!

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