Expiration dates and food - they matter

June 24, 2009|By LYNN LITTLE / Special to The Herald-Mail

When you go food shopping, do you check the dates on the food packages you select?

Those dates matter, but they can be confusing if you don't know what they really mean.

Except for infant formula and some baby food, product dating is not generally required by federal regulations. Most food companies choose to date their foods so that you can count on their quality and safety.

If the food company uses a calendar date, it must express both the month and day of the month (and the year, in the case of shelf-stable and frozen products). If a calendar date is shown, immediately adjacent to the date must be a phrase explaining the meaning of that date such as "sell-by" or "use-before."

Once any food package is opened, the date on the package no longer applies and the item should be use immediately or refrigerated and used within several days.


Leftover foods should be refrigerated in sealed containers and used within three days.

Different dates for different purposes

Open dating (using an easily readable calendar date) is found primarily on perishable foods such as meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products. Closed dating (using codes) might appear on shelf-stable products such as cans or boxes of food.

Here are some general guidelines for interpreting the dates on food packages:

o Open dating stamped on a product's package will help the store determine how long to display the product for sale. It can also help you know the time limit to purchase or use the product at its best quality. It is not a food-safety date.

After the date passes, while not of best quality, the product should still be safe if handled properly and kept at 40 degrees or lower for the recommended storage time. Visit for recommended food storage times.

If a product has a use-by date, follow that date for safety. If the product has a sell-by date or no date, cook or freeze by the times on the chart.

o A sell-by date is a recommendation to the store for how long to display the product for sale. This date is not an indication that the food goes bad after that date. The foods will retain their flavor and freshness for several days after the sell-by date. When selecting foods, buy items with the date furthest away.

o A best-if-used-by (or before) date is recommended for best flavor or quality. If foods are eaten by the date listed, the product will have maximum nutrients and peak flavor. This date is not a purchase or safety date.

o A use-by or expiration date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. This date is usually on refrigerated foods. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product and is not a safety date. Even if the date expired during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality if it is handled properly and kept at 40 degrees or below. Yeast or refrigerated dough may not rise if used after this date.

o Closed or coded dates are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer.

Be sure to keep an eye on the dates on baking mixes. The dehydrated fats used can turn rancid.

Many canned foods will last a year in your pantry if they are maintained at a temperature of 65 degrees or lower. Higher temperatures reduce shelf life. Fruit juices, peppers, sauerkraut, green beans and tomato products should be used within six months.

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

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