The Language of Packaging Dates

Do you ever wonder what expiration dates on the packages mean in the grocery store? When you take something home and it is past the “use by” date, does this mean it is still OK to eat? Here are some tips on various terms related to packages, terms, and what they mean.

• “Sell by” date. You should buy the product before this date. This term tells a store how long to display the product for sale. The issue is quality of the item for freshness and taste versus if the product is about to spoil.
• “Best if used by” date. This refers strictly to quality, not safety. This date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
• “Born on” date. This is the date of manufacture. You may have noticed it on beer cans or bottles. Beer can go sub-par after three month.
• “Guaranteed fresh” date. This usually refers to bakery items. They will still be edible after the date, but will not be at peak freshness.
• “Use by” date. 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.
• “Pack” date. You will find this one on canned or packaged goods. It may be an actual date or it could also be a code. It can be month-day-year (MMDDYY) or the manufacturer could revert to the Julian calendar which would mean January would be 001-0031 and December 334-365.

Just keep in mind that all of these terms are voluntary which means that the federal law only requires actual dates for expiration on certain products such as infant formula and some baby foods. Different states also mandate if dairy has an expiration date.
So how long then are foods good to eat? Milk is generally fine until a week after the “sell by” date. Eggs are usually OK for 3-5 weeks after your bring them home. Poultry and seafood should be cooked or frozen within a day or two. Beef and pork are cooked or frozen within 3-5 days. Highly acidic canned foods such as tomato sauce can keep up to 18 months but non-acidic canned foods are typically risk-free for up to five years. All of these dates are only good if one is following the proper safety and storage guidelines. However always remember when it doubt, throw it out!

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