Expiration Dates for Food Products - Are They Important? Food Safety Tips

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Most products have an expiration date. What doe it mean really? Is there a difference between expiration date, sell by and use by dates? What happens if you inadvertently consume a product that has expired? These are very good questions without very straight forward answers. Here is what you need to know about those confusing expiration dates.

There are a number of phrases that mean basically the same thing. Expiration date, sell by date, use by date, born on date, and guaranteed freshness date are all very similar terms.

Expiration Date:

This is the only date that means do not use after this date. Infant formula, baby foods, prescription drugs, over the counter medications, and vitamins all have expiration dates. Federal law regulates infant formula and baby food. Many states regulate the sale of dairy products with an expiration date. When a products expiration date has passed, it is safer to throw it out than it is to use it.

Sell by Date:

Seen on many products, this is a date determined by the manufacturer. For a consumer, it gives an idea of when the product should be used. For the retailer or reseller this is the last day that the item should remain for sale on the store shelves. There are no federal regulations pertaining to the sell date. Products can be safely consumed even though the sell date has passed. Assume that you have at least a few days to a week after the sell by date. Longer than that, use your senses before indulging. Certain items, such as dehydrated foods, will have a sell by date but most likely these products will outlast the next ice age.

Use by Date:

The manufacturer’s date that states when the product should be used by. This is not regulated by federal law. From a consumer’s standpoint, it means that once this date has passed the product may not be at peak freshness. It is still edible past this date.

Best if Used By:

This is very similar to use by date. This date is to let the consumer know when quality will start to diminish. Federal agencies do not regulate the use of a best if used by date. Items purchased and consumed prior to this date will taste better. Products that are past the best if used by date are safe to eat. If it has been a year since the best if used by date, proceed with caution if you decide to consume it.

Born on Date:

Apparently beer is born not manufactured. Born on date refers to the first date the beer was ready for consumption. Budweiser coined this phrase in order to show that their beer’s freshness is important. This way consumers will not keep beer too long. Beer has a life of about three months. Light and heat are its enemy. Beer that is stored in a dark cool place will keep longer than beer left in the garage during the summer.

Guaranteed Freshness Date:

This is mostly used for baked goods and some refrigerated cookie dough. Breads, rolls, donuts and the like go stale rather quickly when compared to other foods. This date is the last date the manufacturer will guarantee its freshness. After this date, the baked goods tend to lose quality quickly. They can go stale or moldy. Check for mold prior to eating if the date is expired.

Other Dates of Note:

Pack date is the date the item was produced. It can be written in any form of a date code. Sometimes it is in MM/DD/YYYY such as 06/25/2020. Other times it is an abbreviated month, a day and a year, Jan 30 2020. Still more variations appear, like Jan 2020, 30 Mar 2020, or 2020-360 (December 26) this is a Julian date. It is read as the year and then the number of the day of the year. For example Jan 15 2010 would be 2010-015. There could be one or two leading zeros for the day.

When is Food No Longer Fresh:

Fresh food stays fresh for a limited time. Fresh produce does not usually have any form of date. But leaves will wilt, carrots dry out, potatoes and onions sprout, other items go soft and get moldy. Fresh produce is best consumed within a few days.

All poultry, ground meat, organ meat, tongue, and uncooked sausage should be used immediately, and never after two days. Freeze before then to extend the freshness.

Beef, lamb and pork should be used within three to five days. These items can be easily frozen.

Cured hams can keep 5-7 days. Eggs will keep for up to 5 weeks.

How to Keep Food Fresh Longer:

Purchase all food prior to the date listed on the package. Freeze meats, fish and poultry that will not be used within two days.

Heat and humidity are the enemy of food. Bacteria love to grow at temperatures between 41 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Milk and dairy products should be kept at below 38 degrees. Check the refrigerator’s temperature to be sure.

Prior to freezing, place items in a freezer bag, remove as much air as possible from the bag, and write the date on the package. This will keep the item from freezer burn.

Canned goods should be stored at temperatures between 50 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. The ideal storage area is a dark place with low humidity. Cans should be covered with a towel in order to keep the lids free of dust and grime.

You should pay attention to the date on your food packaging. Some dates are more useful than others, but they all give you an idea of how fresh the item is.