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What do food 'sell by' dates really mean?
December 16, 04
Suzanne Havala Hobbs

Ever taken a swig of sour milk or caught a whiff of spoiled feta cheese? If so, you may have gained a keener appreciation of the freshness dates on food labels.

Not all foods carry them. In fact, there are no federal requirements for any foods – with the exception of some infant formulas and baby foods – to be dated.

In North Carolina, food product dating is voluntary. Our state laws and rules are designed to match those on the federal level, with two exceptions, according to Joe Reardon, food administrator for the Food and Drug Protection Division, North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

“North Carolina differs in that we don’t allow the changing of the date on products,” said Reardon. Retailers can sell out of date foods, but they can’t replace an older date with a newer one, Reardon said. For instance, stores can’t rewrap old meat and mark it with a later sell-by date.

Also, Reardon told me, a new law that goes into effect in January in North Carolina will prohibit the sale of infant formula after the “use by” date.

North Carolina is not alone in having mostly voluntary policies on product dating. Less than half of states require dating, and there’s no consistent format in place for those that do.

That can lead to confusion about exactly what the dates we see mean.

Some dates aren’t meant to be of use to consumers. “Closed” or coded dates are packing dates used internally by manufacturers. It’s the “open dating” that we shoppers are interested in – calendar dates used primarily on perishable foods such as milk, eggs, cheese, and meats.

These dates are an indication of product freshness or quality. They’re not safety dates. They may be worded in different ways.

What we most often see:

* “Sell-By” dates. These dates tell retailers how long products should remain on store shelves. They also help retailers rotate their stock. Older items are moved to the front of the display where they’ll be purchased sooner. The date takes into consideration the length of time a food is likely to be in the home before it’s eaten.

I admit that I sometimes rummage around the orange juice case to find the cartons with the latest date. Bottom line is that you want to buy a product before the sell-by date has passed. If it has, it doesn’t mean the food is no good. It just means it’s past its prime.

* “Best if Used By” or similar wording. This is a quality date, not a purchase date. It means the food is at peak quality – has the best flavor or texture – if it’s consumed by this date.

* “Use-By” dates. These are more definitive deadlines by which foods will have passed the point of peak quality. Foods aren’t necessarily unsafe to eat beyond these dates. They’re just likely to lose flavor or texture more rapidly.

Of course, all of this assumes foods are stored at the right temperatures. Foods not refrigerated properly – whether at home or at the store – won’t keep as long regardless of what the freshness date says.

So how long are foods good after the package date? According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service:

* Milk is good for about a week after the sell-by date.

* Eggs can keep for three to five weeks beyond the sell-by date.

* Fresh chicken, turkey, and ground meats should be cooked or frozen within two days.

* Fresh beef, pork and lamb should be cooked or frozen within three to five days.

Cooking or freezing extends the amount of time a food will keep.

Use your eyes and nose, too, to help you determine if foods are fresh, regardless of the date on the package.

The contents of this website are not intended to provide personal medical advice.Individual medical advice should be obtained from a qualified health professional.
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