Insights & Actions for Healthy Living

What do the expiration dates on labels really mean?

This is a good question because the label dates can be very confusing.

There are several dates used on food labels and each one means something entirely different.

Learning what each means will help you shop wisely as well as avoid foodborne illness and food waste. Open dating uses calendar dates instead of code numbers. These dates are not required by the federal government except for baby formula but some states do mandate food date labeling. If expiration dates are used, they require that there is a month and year included. These food label dates are often used on perishable foods but can be found on other items too.

Here are the types of food label dates used by manufacturers:

  1. Sell by – this date is used by retailers to determine how long to provide a product for sale. Buying a product before its sell by date is important.
  2. Use by – this date tells how long a product should be kept to be at peak quality. If this product is bought or used after this date, it could be harmful.
  3. Best if used by – this date tells when the manufacturer wants you to use by or before. It is not safe to use after this date.

How can these dates help you?

Grocery shopping may take you a bit longer when you stop to read all the dates on the labels but it will help you save money and prevent someone in your family from becoming ill by eating tainted food.

Some groceries don’t always rotate their stock so the older products may sit behind newer stock leaving an old product for you when you come to the shelf. Always read the dates and buy the one that is furthest away especially if you don’t plan to use it right away. If a food has been handled poorly and not kept at the appropriate temperature during handling, these dates won’t protect you from illness.

Once you have these items in your pantry, you can rotate your own products and be sure that you are serving everything at the peak of quality.

You can save money if you know that sometimes you can use it a few days after the sell by date but not use it after the best by date.

Avoiding foods that have spoiled or buying foods that have already exceeded their safety zone will help your family in many ways.

This week I saw on the grocery shelf at my supermarket food that was expired and past the best if used by dates. They were still on the shelf right beside the newer items. It pays to be observant when shopping.

We should be sure to read food label dates while we shop and as we store them in our home pantry to be sure we are using food before it can become unsafe and to avoid wasting money and food.

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