Understanding date stamp labels on food

Foods have a date stamped on the label. These dates can help you choose foods that are fresh and safe to eat.

Many foods have a date stamped on the label, but what do they really mean? They are intended to be helpful, but the differences between sell-by, best-if-used-by, use-by and pack dates can be confusing. Here are the most common:

Pull-By of Sell-By Dates

These dates are used on foods like milk, cheese, and packaged meats. They are the last date the product should be sold. These foods are usually stored in the refrigerator. They will stay fresh and safe for few days after this date if you store them properly.

Freshness or Best-If-Used-By Dates
These dates are used on products like bakery goods or packaged cereals. The date is the last day the product can keep its best quality. After this date, the food may lose some of its freshness and nutritional value.

Expiration or Use-By Dates

These dates are the last day the food should be eaten or used. They are used mostly on products such as refrigerated dough and yeast.

Pack Date
This type of date is the day the food was manufactured or processed and packaged. It is used for foods that can be kept for a long time, like canned goods.

Except for use-by dates, product dates don’t always refer to home storage and use after purchase. Use-by dates usually refer to best quality and are not safety dates. But even if the date expires during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality if handled properly and kept at 40 °F or below. If a product has a use-by date, follow that date. If product has a sell-by date or no date, cook or freeze the product. Foods develop an off odor, flavor or appearance due to spoilage bacteria. If food develops such characteristics, you should not use it for quality reasons. If foods are mishandled, however, foodborne bacteria can grow and cause food poisoning before or after the date on the package. For example, if hot dogs are taken to a picnic and left out several hours, they might not be safe if used thereafter, even if the date hasn’t expired. Make sure to follow the handling and preparation instructions on the label to ensure top quality and safety.

Meat, fish and ready meals are often the most expensive things we buy, so it helps to get into the habit of regularly checking the dates on perishable items in your fridge. Move them into the freezer if you don’t think you’ll have time to eat them or cook them for tonight’s supper. When you get home with your shopping, it is a good idea to transfer as much as you can straight into the freezer. If you have large packets of chicken pieces or fish, divide them up and freeze individual portions.

Date stamps can help you choose foods that are fresh and safe to eat, especially if you learn what the different labels imply. For more information visit foodsafety.gov and How Long To Keep? from Iowa State University Extension.

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