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The Meaning Behind Food Product Dates and How Useful Are They to the Consumer

Sep 5, 2008
Except for infant formula and some baby food, product dating is not generally required by U.S. Federal regulations. There is also no universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States. Although dating of some foods is required by more than 20 states, there are areas of the U.S where much of the food supply has some type of date, and other areas where almost no food is dated.

Dates on packaged foods alert the consumer, the store and the manufacturer as to the quality of the food product. These dates are not safety dates and do not automatically mean the product is no longer safe or is spoiled in some way. After the date passes, the product should still be safe if it was handled properly, although the longer you keep it after that date, the greater possibility of spoilage.
If the package does have a date it will most likely have one of the following:

--"Sell-By" date tells the store the last day the product should be offered for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires and only hold it for two or three days beyond this date if it is well refrigerated.

--"Best if Used By (or Before)" and "Best Before End" date is directed at the consumer by the manufacture guaranteeing the best freshness, quality, flavor etc.

--"Use-By" date is directed at the consumer and is the last date recommended for use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer, packer or distributor of the product.

--"Closed or coded dates" are packing numbers used by the manufacturer. These codes, which appear as a series of letters and/or numbers, might refer to the date or time of manufacture. They aren't meant for the consumer to interpret as "use-by" dates. There is no book that tells how to translate the codes into dates.

--"Packed on" dates are sometimes found on canned and frozen food. This date indicates the packaging date and is generally not useful for the consumer.

--"Expiration" or "Exp" is the last date on which a product should be used, similar to the "Use By" date.

Even though products may still be useable after the date, I still recommend not purchasing or using any food product that has passed its "Use By" or "Sell By" date. The manufacturer actually does not want you too either. They want you to continue purchasing their product and if you have a bad or less than expected experience then there is a good chance you are not going to buy that product again.

If you must use or consume the product for whatever reason, just examine the food closely, using all your senses in the following order (this is assuming the packaging is still intact and has not been damaged, dented or bloated in any way):

1. Does the product look good or normal? No abnormal colors, growth, fluids or coating of some unusual matter.

2. Does the product smell out of the ordinary or just spoiled?

3. If it passes the first 2 tests, then lastly taste a small portion (assuming the product is not a raw meat, poultry, seafood or other product that requires cooking first). Is there any out of the ordinary flavor or sharp or strong taste that is not normally present?

If any of these out of the ordinary characteristics are present, then by all means dispose of the product in a safe manner - wrapped up tightly for disposal so others will not be able to get to it.
About the Author
Mr. Doom has worked as a Environmental Health Specialist for more than 20 years. He has conducted thousands of inspections and educated more than a thousand, food facility owners, managers and employees on food safety, and how to prevent food poisoning hazards. To learn more visit http://www.FoodPoisoningPrevention.com.
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