expration date

When it Comes to Food Products—What’s in a Date?

No doubt, you’ve noticed that some food products come with dates and codes printed on them. Does that mean it has to be consumed by that date or just sold by that date?

Goods and Food safety

Or what about canned or packaged goods that show only a date like “2.01.14.” Does that mean you could end up in the Emergency Room if you consume it after that date?

Other food products don’t seem to have any date at all. Confusing, isn’t it? That’s why I thought today would be a good time to bone up on food dating.

Only baby food and formula?!

While most food processors date and code their products, it is the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) that mandates dating.

Under Federal law, only infant formula and baby food are required to have product dating. Everything else is voluntary.

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

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

Food safety or quality?

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.

food product and Credit

The food is still safe to eat after this date but may have changed somewhat in taste or texture.

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 arrived at its “sell by” date should be either consumed or frozen within 24 hours.

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 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.

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.

Dates on egg cartons

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.

Egg and food product

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.

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.

Tip: In a properly stocked store, the freshest items will be at the back of the shelf or underneath older items.


Photo credits: The Univerity of Arizona, College of Agriculture & Life Sciences Cooperative Extension


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3 replies
  1. Barbara Clinansmith says:

    When I bring groceries home, packaged and can goods, I use a sharpie to write the date on the items in plain site because sometimes what I bring home today could have an older date than some in the pantry. I then keep them in date order. A little bit of time is worth it as a can of sweet potatoes one time kept being pushed to the back and “exploded”.

  2. Nicole says:

    Julian dates are kind of easy – January 1 is 1. February 1 is 32 (all of January + 1) etc. December 31 = 365 in a non-leap year.

  3. Deena Costley says:

    I think it’s sad that some of these industries feel the need to ‘code’ this info. They should be transparent enough to display the information for everyone to see without having to know the codes.


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