Dechipering dates on canned foods

November 23, 2005|by LYNN F. LITTLE

You pull a can of vegetables out of the cupboard, only to find the "best used by" date stamped on the can was three months ago. The second can you examine has several numbers stamped on the bottom, but no recognizable date. Why the difference? Which product is the better choice?

The manufacturer of the first vegetable is participating in a voluntary program called "open dating." This involves stamping a calendar date on a product as opposed to a packing number or coded date. Open dating helps the grocery store personnel know how long to display a product for sale. It also helps the consumer know when a product might be past its peak quality. Open dating on canned foods and other shelf-stable food products does not indicate safety. If the can is properly sealed, and the product does not ooze or spurt when opened, both cans of vegetables should be safe to eat.


With the exception of infant formula and some baby food, product dating is not required by federal regulations. If a calendar date is given, it must include the month and day of the month. Shelf-stable and frozen products also must include the year. There also must be a phrase close by describing the meaning of the date. Here are some typical descriptors and what they mean:

· Sell by. This date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. This date is most important for refrigerated products like milk, cheese and packaged meats. This means the store must take the refrigerated foods off the shelf by the date listed. If the food has been refrigerated at the proper temperature it still will be safe to eat.

Stored properly, most perishable foods will stay fresh and safe for a few days after the "sell-by" date. The closer a product is to the "sell by" date, the more quickly you should use it. Do not use the food if it smells bad or the seal has been broken. Canned foods that are past their "sell-by" dates are less of a concern; still, the information is useful for rotating items in your cupboard.

·Best or better if used by. Look for this phrase on packaged mixes, cold cereals, peanut butter and baby food. This means that after the "best or better if used by" date, the food will lose its good flavor and develop off-flavors. This date is the estimate for how long the food will be in top quality. Do not use baby food that is past the quality date.

· Use by. This 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 and is a quality, not a safety, date.

· Expires or do not use after. Look for these descriptors on infant formula, baby food, vitamins, yeast, baking powder and cake mixes. These are good dates to follow. In the case of baby formula and baby food, the dates ensure that the products are of good nutritional value as well as product quality. When it comes to yeast and baking powder, the dates listed ensure the leavening power of the product.

Dates on eggs. At a minimum, egg cartons from USDA-inspected plants must include the date they were packed as a Julian date, with 001 being Jan. 1 and 365 being Dec. 31. They also might carry an expiration date beyond which the eggs should not be sold. In USDA-inspected plants, this date cannot exceed 30 days after the pack date. As long as you purchase eggs before the expiration date and keep them refrigerated, they should be good to use for three to five weeks after purchase.

Follow these tips to make the most of the labeling information on food packages:

· Purchase the product before the date expires.

· If perishable, take the food home immediately after purchase and refrigerate it promptly. Freeze it if you can't use it within a short period of time. Once a perishable product is frozen, it doesn't matter if the date expires because foods kept frozen are safe indefinitely.

· In addition to reading the date labels on food packages, be certain to follow handling recommendations on the product.

· When in doubt, throw it out.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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