Decoding Food Dating

by Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN on July 13, 2007 · 0 comments

What’s in a date? Almost every food you buy—even soda and water—comes with a date stamped on the package. But, the only foods that must be dated by Federal regulations are baby food and baby formula. Twenty states have varying local ordinances, but many others have none. So what do package dates mean and should you depend on them for freshness and quality?

Recent concerns about food safety have prompted many manufacturers to include “freshness dating” on packages, hence the dates on water and soda bottles. The idea was to give consumers a relative idea about the freshness of the product, a variation on expiration dating. But research has shown that in some cases it’s backfiring on sales. When asked to taste products near the end of their freshness life, consumers rated them as having poorer quality—whether the food was actually at the end of it freshness life, or if the researchers manipulated the date for the study. In other words, if people think a product is fresh, it tastes fresh. If they believe the product is less fresh, they rate the taste as poorer or stale.

A variation of freshness dating is the “Best if Used By” or “Use Before” date. You’ll find these on cereal boxes, crackers, mayonnaise, and shelf-stable foods. This is not a safety date but the manufacturer’s recommended time span for best flavor or quality. If the product is stored properly, eating it after the “use before” date is not an issue. Use commonsense: a few weeks past the date is fine. If the “use before” date is months or even years past, throw it away.

“Use By” dates are slightly different than “Use Before.” “Use By” refers to the date after which the products will lose peak quality. Again, this is the manufacturer’s recommendation. You’ll find these dates on cream cheese, prepared puddings, cottage cheese, yogurt, and eggs. If stored correctly, most of these foods are completely safe to eat for a time after the date. Eggs are a good example. If “Use By May 27” is stamped on a carton of eggs, you can safely use the eggs for 3 to 5 weeks after that date. The difference you’ll see is the yolk will break more easily and the white will be more runny, but the eggs are safe and their nutritional quality intact.

“Sell By” dates may be a local regulation or a freshness date set by the manufacturer. They tell the store how long to keep a food on the shelf for sale. Bread, milk, meat, poultry, and cheese frequently have “sell by” dating.

Many foods, especially cans, jars, and boxes, display closed or coded dates. They may be a series of letters, numbers, dates and/or times, such as: 1566 12:00 PM 0F00/24/07. Regardless of what urban myth you may have been told, these are individual to the food producers and there is no universal system to decode the numbers. They are not meant for consumer use but as a tool for distribution, stock rotation, and in the event of a recall.

Because dating systems vary by where you live and food type, here are some tips to ensure safety and quality of foods.

  • Buy foods before their expiration, use by, or sell by dates.
  • Use foods by their recommended use before date.
  • Once defrosted, regardless of the date, use the food within 3 days.
  • If a food is kept frozen, even if the date expires, the food is safe to eat.
  • Every 6 months, check for “lost” items pushed to the back of your cupboard.
  • All foods will lose freshness or spoil if stored improperly. Keep cold foods cold, and dry foods dry.
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