Date Labels on Packaged Food

Many consumers misunderstand the purpose and meaning of the date labels that often appear on packaged foods. Confusion over date labeling accounts for an estimated 20 percent of consumer food waste!

Let’s break down those date labels!

Product dating is used to help consumers know when food is of best quality, not necessarily for when it is safe to consume. Most date labels are not based on exact science. Manufacturers choose to apply date labels for a variety of reasons, the most common being to inform consumers and retailers how long they can expect the food to retain its desired quality and flavor.

There are no universally accepted phrases for date labels in the United States. As a result, there are a wide variety of phrases used on labels to describe quality dates. The food industry is moving toward more uniform practices for date labeling of packaged foods. But, for now, consumers may see different phrases used for product dating, such as Sell-By, Best if Used By, Use-By, etc. Here’s what they mean:

Best if Used By/Before: Indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

Sell-By: Used for inventory management for stores to determine how long to display the product for sale. It is not a safety date.

Use-By: Except when used on infant formula, this is not a safety date. It indicates the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The manufacturer, packer or distributor of the product selects the use-by date based on product analysis, tests, conditions of handling, storage, preparation or other information.

Consume or Freeze-By: Indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

Except for infant formula, product dating is not required by federal regulations.

Foods can still be safe to eat after the product label has passed, especially if they have been stored correctly! Food safety and storage determine how long food can last. Light, oxygen, heat, humidity, temperature and spoilage bacteria can all affect both safety and quality of perishable foods.

Always trust your instincts around smell and taste in determining if food is still edible. Signs of food spoilage may include an appearance different from the food in its fresh form, such as a change in color, a change in texture, an unpleasant odor or an undesirable taste. Routinely examine foods that are past their product label date to determine if the quality is sufficient for use. See foods with special considerations described below.

Yes! While the date label doesn’t necessarily mean the product is bad as soon as that date passes, it is a good idea to inspect the product for food safety once the date has passed. The date label can also serve as a reminder to use up the food before it is wasted.

Food poisoning bacteria does not grow in the freezer, so, no matter how long a food is frozen, it is safe to eat. However, foods that have been in the freezer for months may be dry or may not taste as good. If you find a package of ground beef that has been in the freezer for more than a few months, don’t throw it out. Add seasonings and additional ingredients to make up for the loss of flavor.

These are foods that can be safely stored at room temperature. Most shelf-stable foods are safe indefinitely if the storage container is in good condition (no rust, dents or swelling).

Foods with special considerations

Infant formula
Do not use infant formula after its use-by date. Federal regulations require a use-by date on the product label of infant formula to ensure it meets the nutrition facts as described on the label.

Eggs sold in the state of Minnesota are required to have a pack date (the date when the eggs were washed, graded and placed in the carton) and a quality assurance date. Store eggs in their original carton and use them within three weeks of purchase for best quality.

Fresh deli meats
Cold-cut deli meats are commonly exposed to environmental sources of contamination. Store factory-sealed, unopened packages no longer than two weeks in the refrigerator. Store opened packages and meat sliced at a local deli no longer than three to five days in the refrigerator.