Dates on meat packages – Sell by, use by, freeze by, packaged on, expiration date

Ever wonder why different food has different indicator dates on the package and what they mean?

It can be really confusing to look at an indicator date on a package and see a variety of different terms. If there is a misunderstanding of what the date means, the safety of the food product and those consuming it could be compromised. Michigan State University Extension recommends keeping your refrigerator at the proper temperature, less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit. It is important that continuous refrigerated or frozen storage be used with meat products that are not shelf stable.

Sell by – This creates an easy date for the retailer to know when the product has to be removed from their shelf and disposed of instead of being sold. In general, consumers have one to three days to use that meat product if it is fresh before there would be concern from a safety standpoint. Typically retailers will mark down the price of a product if the sell by date is near. That can create an opportunity for consumers to purchase something that is still acceptable from a safety and quality standpoint at a bargain as long as the consumer goes home and uses the product right away.

Use by/Freeze by – This type of dating system is clearest for the consumer. If it is a fresh product, it needs to be consumed on or before the use by date on the package or frozen if additional storage time is desired. Frozen storage times for meat can vary from one to 12 months depending on the species (chicken, turkey, pork, lamb, beef) from a quality aspect. If the product is frozen and kept frozen, safety does not become an issue.

Packaged on – This type of date is often used on fresh meat but also leaves the most room for confusion or error on behalf of the consumer. Most fresh meat can be stored at refrigerated temperatures for up to three days after packaging in typical meat tray overwrap style or butcher paper wrap packaging. Longer storage time of up to seven days from retail purchase can be used if the product is vacuum packaged with a good seal and the air is removed from the package.

Expiration date – For consumers, expiration dates are very user friendly. Simply, the product needs to be used on or before the expiration date from a safety standpoint. These types of dates are not as common on meat packages but are found with some processed meat products.

Another question that is common relates to processed meat products. Once a processed meat product (ham, hot dog, lunchmeat, etc.) package is opened, the product should be good for up to seven days unless another type of date is on the package and has passed. After the seven days, the product should not be consumed. That means if a package of hot dogs is opened up and a few are prepared and eaten, within seven days the rest of the hot dogs need to be eaten or the remaining ones can be frozen. If you go to the deli and received sliced lunchmeat, eat that within seven days.

Stay on top of dates and acceptable storage times to reduce food waste. But when in doubt, throw it out.