Defining Food Dates: What Do They Actually Mean?

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With temperatures dropping, we are starting to reach into our pantries more to make our favorite cool weather comfort foods, like chili, soups, and casseroles. As we look to see what ingredients we have on-hand and what we need to grab at the store, we encounter several dates on the packaging that look very similar. Which of these dates are important to consider with regard to food spoilage? As we know from the frequent new announcements about bacterial contamination of fresh produce or product recalls, food borne illness is a serious concern. According to the NC Department of Health and Human Services, 17 percent of Americans become ill as a result of consuming contaminated food and drinks each year, resulting in 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. On the other hand, food waste is also a large issue in the US. Based on 2010 data from the USDA’s Economic Research Service, 31 percent of the total food supply is wasted at the retail and consumer levels, translating to approximately 133 billion pounds of food lost. Wasted food is also the largest category of material dumped in municipal landfills. So how can we strike the balance and use food dates to help us stay safe while minimizing food waste? Today we’ll highlight some common dates found on food packaging and explain the meaning behind them so you can feel more confident from a food safety perspective and minimize throwing out food that is likely still safe to eat.

Types of Food Dates

Listed below are common food dates found on packaging and a brief explanation of each:

  • Best if Used By/Before”: This date pertains to product quality and the date by which the product will remain at its best in terms of quality characteristics such as appearance and flavor. This date does not indicate information on its safety to consume.
  • Sell By or Expiration”: This date is used by grocery store staff to manage inventory and to determine how long to display the item for sale to ensure that consumers purchase products at ideal quality. Once again, this date does not provide information regarding food safety.
  • Use By”: The last recommended date to use the product while it is at peak quality. This date is added by the manufacturer and again does not pertain to the food safety for most foods, as long as the product has been properly stored and handled. The exception to this is baby formula, and this date is used to track the nutritional quality of the food since nutrition decreases over time. Infant formula should not be used after the “used by” date has passed.
  • Freeze By”: Recommended date by which to freeze a product to at peak quality. Again, not a food safety date.
  • Manufacturing dates: This date is important for tracking purposes in the event of a product recall. Once again, it does not relate to food safety.

A lack of dates is also not a reason for alarm, as the company that manufactures the product may decide not to put dates on the packaging. Again, this goes back to product quality and the assumption that consumers will likely use the product before its quality decreases.

As you might have observed, most dates provide information on product quality rather than food safety. However, without knowing what these different dates indicate, it is easy to see how this confusion can lead to the throwing away of food that is still safe to eat and might just be slightly past its peak quality. It’s important to check your food for signs or spoilage or that the package is compromised (bulging or dents in cans, packages with holes, etc.). Spoiled food will typically look “off,” appearing different in texture and color, and smell and taste unpleasant before it becomes unsafe to eat. The best thing that you can do as a consumer is to follow good food-handling and storage practices, which can minimize unnecessary spoilage and ensure food safety.

If you are interested in learning more about food labeling and safety, please contact N.C. Cooperative Extension at the Lee County Center office and ask for Meredith Favre, our Local Foods Coordinator, for more information.

Sources

Food Poisoning & Food-Borne Illnesses

What Do Expiration Dates on Food Packages Really Mean?

Food Expiration Dates

Food Loss and Waste