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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!
What is food product dating?
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.
What do the different date labels mean?
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:
Is product dating required?
Except for infant formula, product dating is not required by federal regulations.
Are foods safe to eat after the product label date has passed?
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.
Should I pay attention to date labels at all?
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.
What about freezer foods?
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.
What about shelf-stable foods?
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).
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.