When It Comes to Food Products, What's in a Date?

By Mary Hunt

March 14, 2019 4 min read

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

Or what about canned or packaged goods that show only a date like "2.01.19"? 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.

While most food processors date and code their products, the Food and Drug Administration mandates dating. Under federal law, only infant formula is 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.

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.

The "sell by" date is usually found on highly perishable foods like meat, milk and bread. This date guides store clerks who handle the shelf stock rotation so they know which item to sell first. It is determined to allow time for the product to be stored and used at home. If handled properly, the product is still safe and wholesome past this date 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.

"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, though the product may still be edible.

Some products bear a "pack date" indicating when they were packaged, though this date is often encrypted so only manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers can read it.

The pack date on some products, such as eggs, is shown as a Julian date (1 through 365). Jan. 1 is number 1, and Dec. 31 is number 365.

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 their 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.

Mary invites questions, comments and tips at [email protected], or c/o Everyday Cheapskate, 12340 Seal Beach Blvd., Suite B-416, Seal Beach, CA 90740. This column will answer questions of general interest, but letters cannot be answered individually. Mary Hunt is the founder of www.DebtProofLiving.com, a personal finance member website and the author of "Debt-Proof Living," released in 2014. To find out more about Mary and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.

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