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 expiration dates.

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:

  1. Month and date - Nov. 25
  2. or by numbers - 11-25
  3. 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 company’s 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 date.

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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