Food Date Labels Can Be Confusing

Elizabeth S. Reames  |  8/4/2006 12:23:22 AM

News You Can Use For 08/04/06

Food date labels are worded in various ways, and interpreting them can be confusing. LSU AgCenter nutritionist Dr. Beth Reames hopes to clear the fog for shoppers who want to understand what the food labels mean.

The "sell-by" date tells the store how long to hold the food for sale. You should buy the food before the sell-by-date expires.

Reames explains that if the product has a sell-by date, the product may be stored in the refrigerator and then cooked or frozen within the recommended purchase period. Take perishable food home immediately after purchase and refrigerate or freeze it promptly.

Keep the refrigerator at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below. Refrigerator storage times for ground beef, ground poultry and poultry is 1-2 days; for beef, veal, pork and lamb it is 3-5 days. Keep an appliance thermometer in your refrigerator to check temperatures.

Once a perishable food is frozen, it doesn’t matter if the date expires because foods kept frozen continuously are safe indefinitely, the nutritionist notes. Keep the freezer set at zero degrees or below.

The "best-if-used-by/before" date indicates best flavor or quality. It is not a safety date and does not indicate when a food should be purchased.

If a food smells, tastes or looks bad, however, you should not use it for quality reasons. Spoilage bacteria can cause food to develop off-odors, flavors or appearance. If foods aren’t properly handled, food borne bacteria can grow and cause food borne illness – regardless of the date label. For example, if hot dogs are taken to a picnic and left out for several hours, they would not be safe to use, even if the date hasn’t expired.

The "use-by" date is the last date recommended for peak quality. The date is determined by the manufacturer of the product. It’s important not to buy or use baby formula or baby food, for example, after its use-by date. Federal regulations require a use-by date on such products to insure nutritional value and food quality.

If an egg carton has an expiration date printed on it, such at "EXP May 1," that date is the last day the store may sell the eggs as fresh. The federal grademark, such as Grade AA, means the "fresh" date cannot be more than 30 days from the date the eggs were packed in the carton.

Reames adds, however, that as long as you purchase a carton of eggs before the date expires, you should be able to use all the eggs safely from three to five weeks after the date you purchase them.

Cans may display open or calendar dates. Usually these are best-if-used-by dates for peak quality. In general, high-acid canned foods, such as tomatoes, grapefruit and pineapple, can be stored on the shelf from 12 to 18 months; low-acid canned foods such as meat, poultry, fish and most vegetables will keep 2 to 5 years – if the can remains in good condition and has been stored in a cool, clean, dry place.

"Closed" or "coded" dates are packaging numbers that enable manufacturers to rotate their stock as well as to locate their products in the event of a recall. They don’t mean consumers must use the product by these dates.

Except for use-by dates, Reames says product dates don’t always refer to home storage or use after purchase. Even if the date expires during home storage, perishable foods should be safe, wholesome and of good quality – if handled properly and kept refrigerated or frozen.

For related family and consumer topics, click on the Family and Home link on the LSU AgCenter homepage, at For local information and educational programs, contact an extension agent in your parish LSU AgCenter office.


On the Internet: LSU AgCenter:

Source: Beth Reames (225) 578-3929, or

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