exp sell by dates on food products

You’re Not the Only One Confused by Date Labels on Packaged Foods!

No doubt, you’ve noticed that some food products come with dates and codes printed on them. And who isn’t noticing this more now as food costs are skyrocketing?

exp sell by dates on food productsDo those codes and dates mean the item must be consumed by that date or just sold by that date?

What about canned or packaged goods that show only a date like “2.01.21.” Does that mean you could end up in the Emergency Room if you consume it after that date?

And then there are other food products that don’t seem to have any date at all—at least we sure can’t find any reference to one. Confusing, isn’t it?

FDA Mandates are Limited

While most food processors date and code their products and decide what their codes mean, it is the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) that mandates dating and it is very limited.

Under Federal lawonly infant formula and baby food are required to have product dating. Everything else is voluntary on the part of food manufacturers and processors.

Meat, poultry, and egg products fall under the Food Safety and Inspection Service and dates may be voluntarily made up as long as they are truthful and not misleading.

Beyond that, the food industry generally follows certain guidelines suggested by the FDA. Yes, read that again: suggested.

Food Safety or Quality?food product and Credit

Phrases like “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. You will find these phrases on products like 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.

Perplexed? Unsure? Open it! Give it the smell test and a good visual test. I can attest to the fact that a can of non-fat evaporated milk that is 3 years past its “Best By” date, will not smell sour. But it may be golden in color (think school bus) and curiously separated leaving watering liquid on top and chunky solids beneath. Get the picture?


Date-Labeling Terms

“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 these usually mean what they say. 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 and easily refreshed with a few minutes in a hot oven.

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.

What About “Sell By”?

The “Sell By” date is usually found on highly perishable foods like meat, milk, and bread. This date guides store clerks who handle the rotation of shelf stock so they know which item to sell first.

This date is determined to allow time for the product to be stored and used at home. The product is still safe and wholesome past this date if handled properly until spoilage is evident—when it looks more like a Science Fair project than tonight’s dinner.

For example, milk will usually be good for at least a week beyond its “sell by” date if properly refrigerated. Meat that has reached its “sell by” date should be either consumed or frozen within 24 hours.


Dates on Egg CartonsEgg and food product

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, ignoring leap year.


In other coding, which often appears on the plastic tab of loaves of bread and other bakery products, 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.

So What’s the Point?

The point in all of this is that the fresher your food, the better it is. And for the most part, processors want to assure customers that their products will remain at peak quality for certain periods of time because they want to keep your business—and having a good reputation for freshness goes a long way toward making that happen.


Bottom Line

Use your common sense. Practice diligence when purchasing, storing, and using up food. And never stop looking for reasonable ways to make food last longer and stretch farther.




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5 replies
  1. Deb R. says:

    I just threw away two cans of tomatoes with green chilies from 2018. I opened the newest one (well, its use by date was three months ago), then opened the other two to compare. The first one didn’t make noise, the other two gave a “ffsht” sound. The color of the product in the first can was bright, in the other two cans it was dull. I decided better safe than sorry.

  2. Trudy says:

    We eat dairy and eggs that are past the date without any problems. Sour dairy can be used in baking in place of regular or buttermilk. We’ve eaten sour cream that was 2 months past the date. I also buy marked down meat and have never had a problem.

  3. Gina D Stevens says:

    Is it just me, or are the dates “findability” hard as calculus? If they are in plain sight, the date stamper is nearly out of ink.

  4. Cally Ross says:

    What about a cake or brownie mix stored in the refrigerator for 3 years? I’m curious as to how it would “go bad” if frozen. I should NOT stock up on such items, I always forget they are there!

    • Mary Hunt says:

      “Go bad” is a nebulous term. It is not likely to become “spoiled” as we would think of milk or eggs going bad. But time can degrade the flour and other dry ingredients so that they taste terrible. They are not indefinitely stable. Hope that helps


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