Food Expiration Dates – What Do They Mean, What Don’t They Mean?

Food products often carry a myriad of dates and codes that seem important. Many people have been guilty of reading them too literally and discarding otherwise edible food. Most people do not know, however, that, with the exception of infant formula, none of these dates are food safety related and none are required by law. The dates offer recommendations for using the food and assist the store in selling the product.
Two types of package dating are used: open and closed/coded dates. Open dating is found on most foods including meat, poultry, egg and dairy products. “Closed or coded dates” are a series of letters and/or numbers and typically appear on shelf-stable products such as cans and boxes of food.

There are no uniform or universally accepted descriptions used on food labels for open dating in the United States. As a result, there are a wide variety of phrases and dates used on food products.

Here are several widely used dates and what they mean:
A “Best if Used By/Before” date indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality.
It is not a purchase or safety date. Factors which influence this date include the length of time and the temperature at which a food is held during distribution and offered for sale, the characteristics of the food (lower pH and water activity, heat treatment), and the type of packaging (vacuum or reduced oxygen, sealed can or jar) will affect how long a product will be of optimum quality. Manufacturers and retailers will consider these factors when determining the date for which the product will be of best quality.

A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. Again this not a safety date. According to the IFT (Institute of Food Technologists), “one-third of a product’s shelf-life remains after the sell-by date for the consumer to use at home.” The quality of perishable products may deteriorate after the date passes; however, such products should still be safe if handled properly. Consumers must evaluate the quality of the product prior to its consumption to determine if the product shows signs of spoilage. Note however, that the concern here is with spoilage rather than risk of pathogen growth or foodborne illness
A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The customer ‘should’ eat the food by this date after which the food quality will decline It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula as described below. This label is aimed at consumers as a directive of the date by which the product should be eaten; mostly because of quality, not because the item will necessarily make you sick if eaten after the use-by date.
A “Freeze-By” date indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
Can Codes and Bar Codes are used first to assist in stock rotation and second to assist the grocery store in a more rapid checkout procedure. They are not used for product recalls.
If you’re thinking the food industry must be as frustrated over food dates as you are, you’re right! The industry has been asking for a uniform food dating standard.

For more information, here are the resources used in writing this blog entry.
Institute of Food Technologists, ScienceDaily, The Difference Between ‘Use-By’, ‘Sell-By’ and ‘Best By’ Dates 1/18/23