Nutrition Column – Making Sense Out of Dates on Food Packages

You pull a can of soup out of the cupboard, only to find the "best used by" date stamped on the can was three months ago. The second can of soup you examine has several numbers stamped on the bottom, but no recognizable date. Why the difference? Which soup is the better choice?

The manufacturer of the first soup can is participating in a voluntary program called "open dating." This involves stamping a calendar date on a product as opposed to a packing number or coded date. Open dating helps the grocery store personnel know how long to display a product for sale. It also helps the consumer know when a product may be past its peak quality. Open dating on soup cans and other shelf-stable foods, however, does not indicate safety. Provided the cans are in good shape and the product does not ooze or spurt when opened, both soups should be safe to eat.

With the exception of infant formula and some baby food, product dating is not required by federal regulations. However, if a calendar date is given, it must include the month and day of the month. Shelf-stable and frozen products must also include the year. Also, there must be a phrase close by describing the meaning of the date. Here are some typical descriptors and what they mean:

– Sell-By: Tells the store how long to display the product for sale. This date is most important for refrigerated products like milk, cheese and packaged meats. If stored properly, most perishable foods will stay fresh and safe for a few days after the "sell-by" date. Canned foods that are past their "sell-by" dates are less of a concern; still, the information is useful for rotating items in your cupboard.

– Best if Used By: Tells the user the date the product is recommended to be used by for best flavor or quality. This is not a purchase or safety date, but a quality date.

– Use-By: Like "best used by," this is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product and is a quality, not safety, date.

– Expires or Do Not Use After: Look for these descriptors on infant formula, baby food, vitamins, yeast and baking powder. These are good dates to follow. In the case of baby formula and food, they ensure that the products are of good nutritional as well as product quality. For yeast and baking powder, they ensure the leavening power of the product.

– Dates on eggs: At a minimum, egg cartons from USDA-inspected plants must include the date they were packed as a Julian date, with 001 being January 1 and 365 being December 31. They may also carry an expiration date beyond which the eggs should not be sold. In USDA-inspected plants, this date cannot exceed 30 days after the pack date. As long as you purchase eggs before the expiration date and keep them refrigerated, they should be good to use for three to five weeks after purchase.

– Bottom line: Follow these tips to make the most of the labeling information on food packages:

– Purchase the product before the date expires.

– If perishable, take the food home immediately after purchase and refrigerate it promptly. Freeze it if you can’t use it within a short period of time.

– Once a perishable product is frozen, it doesn’t matter if the date expires because foods kept frozen continuously are safe indefinitely.

– Follow handling recommendations on the product.

– When in doubt, throw it out.

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by Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension