Save dollars by decoding product dates

March 22, 2011|Lynn Little

Have you cleaned a cupboard, your refrigerator or freezer and tried to remember when you bought the food you found buried in the back?

When studying these foods you probably discovered a code or date on the package. How do you interpret this information?

You are likely to find either open dating or closed, coded dating on many food products.

Open dating gives an actual date. It is used primarily on perishable foods, such as meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products. These dates help the grocer determine how long to display food products for sale.  It can help you, as the consumer, to know the time limit to purchase or use the food product at its best quality.    

There are three types of open dating:

 A sell-by date tells the grocery 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 the recommendation for the time a food will be at its 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 food product while it is at peak quality. This date is determined by the manufacturer of the product.

After the date passes, while not at its best quality, the food should still be safe to eat if handled properly and kept at 40 degrees or below for the recommended storage time. (Go to and search for food storage times.)

Closed or coded dates are used by the manufacturer. These codes are used to track food products in interstate commerce. This code also allows the manufacturer to rotate their stock as well as to locate their products in the event of a recall.  

These closed, coded dates appear as a series of letters and/or numbers. They are not meant for you, as the consumer, to interpret as "use-by" dates. Some canned foods might also have an open date that is usually a "best-if-used-by" date for peak quality.

There are many possible code date combinations so if you are unsure how long a product should be kept, it is always best to contact the manufacturer. Also, manufacturers can provide information regarding how long the product should be kept.

 Once opened, regardless of dates, the food becomes perishable and should be used as quickly as possible. Be sure to refrigerate leftovers in a covered container (not the original can) and use within three to five days. The exception to this is condiments and pickled items that can last several weeks if refrigerated properly after opening.  

The majority of food dates are done voluntarily. Dating is not required by U.S. federal law, with the exception of infant formula and baby foods, which must be withdrawn by their expiration date.  

Reading and decoding food product dates makes it easy to practice wise and safe shopping, saving food dollars.

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

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