Food Freshness: The Date
on the Label
Is the food you buy fresh enough to eat? How long will
it remain fresh? The answer to these questions can be found on most food
labels. With "open dating" you can get a good idea about the
freshness of food.
Open dates are calendar dates that are imprinted or stamped
on a food label. The date lets consumers know how long a product will
remain fresh and safe. All package dates should be used as a guide, except
Companies are not required to print dates on food packages. It is strictly
a voluntary practice, except for baby foods. By law, all baby food and
formula must carry an expiration date. Never use these products after
the expiration date.
Different companies often state dates in different ways.
For example: November 25, 1999 can be written three different ways:
- Month and date - Nov. 25
- or by numbers - 11-25
- or 1125
There are four types of dates on food labels.
- "Pull" date or "sell by" date. This
is the last date the company wants the food to be sold. This date allows
for more storage and use time at home. Even if the food is sold on the
"sell by " date, it can still be eaten later.
Many people unknowingly pour fresh milk down the drain. The date on the
label is a "sell by" date for the grocery store. It is not a
"use by" date for the consumer. Generally milk is safe andwholesome
7 to 10 days after the date on the label.
- "Freshness" date or "quality assurance"
date. This date suggests how long the manufacturer thinks the food will
remain at peak quality. The label might read "Best if used by November,
1999". However, the product still may be used after this date.
Although it may no longer meet the companys standard for freshness.
- "Pack" date or "package" date. This
is the date the food was packaged or processed. With this information,
consumers can decide which package is fresher. Fresh meat is labeled
with a pack date. Do not buy ground beef packaged three days ago when
a package is available that was packed today.
- "Expiration" date. This is the last date the product
should be eaten. It might read, "Do not use after October, 1998."
The Food and Drug Administration regulates the expiration date on all
baby food and infant formula. After the expiration date, food is no
longer safe to eat. Always discard food that has passed the expiration
Let the date on the label be your guide to freshness. Always look for
signs of spoilage when using packaged foods. If food has mold, an off
color, or smells bad throw it away. Never taste food that may be spoiled.
Written by Drusilla Banks,
Nutrition and Wellness Educator, University of Illinois Extension.
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