Dear Cheapskate: Can you clarify expiration dates on food products? When it says “Sell By 8/01/23” does that mean it has to be used or just sold by that date? Others show a date of say 2/01/26 on canned or packaged goods. Does that mean you need to use it by this date or what? Some canned or packaged products don’t seem to have any date that I can find. Why is that? I’m so confused! — Bob D.
Dear Bob: The answer, which I can promise you will be much longer than your question, may surprise you. We’re all confused! There is no standardization in the industry. Confusing food date labels lead to staggering food waste in America.
The Food and Drug Administration mandates product dating only on infant formula and baby food. Everything else is voluntary. While there is no standardization, the food industry generally follows certain guidelines suggested by the FDA, the operative word being “generally.”
Phrases such as “Best Before,” “Better if Used Before,” or “Best if Used By” tell you how long the product will retain its best flavor and highest quality. They are found on products such as baked goods, cereals, snacks and some canned foods. The food is still safe to eat after this date, but may have changed somewhat in taste or texture.
The “Sell By” date is usually found on highly perishable foods such as meat, milk and bread. This date is supposed to guide the way products are rotated on store shelves and allows time for the product to be stored and used at home. The product is still safe and wholesome past this date. For example, milk will usually be good for at least a week beyond its sell-by date if properly refrigerated.
Meat that has arrived at its sell-by date should be either consumed or frozen within 24 hours. You can also extend the useful life of milk and baked goods by freezing within a day or so of sell-by date.
“Expiration,” “Use By” or “Use Before” are phrases that appear on yogurt, eggs and other foods that require refrigeration. Other dating terms are guidelines, but this one means what it says. If you haven’t used the product by this date, toss it out.
“Guaranteed fresh.” This date is often used for perishable baked goods. Beyond this date, freshness is no longer guaranteed although the product may still be edible.
Some products bear a “pack date,” indicating when it was packaged, although this date is often encrypted so that only manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers can read it. The pack date on some products, such as eggs, is shown by a Julian date (1 through 365), January 1 is number 1, and December 31 is number 365. In other coding, letters A through M (omitting the letter I) are often assigned to the months, with A being January and M being December, plus a numeric day, either preceded or followed by the numeric year.
The point in all of this is that the fresher your food, the better it is. And processors want to assure customers that their products will remain at peak quality for certain periods of time. Tip: In a properly stocked store, the freshest items will be at the back of the shelf or underneath older items.
For more information on food storage and safety issues, go to www.fda.gov and search “food storage.”