It can be difficult to decipher what the array of numbers, letters, and symbols mean on food packaging. Use-by dates and best-by dates are on nearly every food item we buy, so it’s important we understand them. Let’s look at what they mean, why they are printed, and how to use them to ensure food is safe.
What do the dates on food mean?
Date codes are usually classified into two categories: “open dates” and “closed dates”. Each category has a different use based on how the food is packaged.
An “open date” is typically marked by a phrase such as “Use By,” “Best By,” or “Sell By.” With the exception of infant formula, federal law does not require manufactures to provide such dates. If manufacturers choose to publish dates, products like meat, poultry, and eggs must include the month and day of the month. For shelf-stable and frozen products, manufacturers must also provide the year. Next to the date, a phrase must accompany it, such as “Use By,” “Best By,” or “Sell By.” This informs the customer what the date means. As of May 2019, the FDA officially recommends using the term “Best if Used By” to mark food. This term indicates to consumers that food may still be used after the date, but that it’s quality may begin to decline.
According to the USDA, “Closed dates” are used by manufacturers to identify when the food was produced or packaged. These date codes usually consist of numbers and letters that are used specifically by the manufacturer. When food recalls occur, these codes can help manufacturers trace where the contaminated product went and what can be done to resolve the issue. The FDA requires that canned goods must have a date code to identify when the food was canned.
When preparing food for later use, it is wise to date-mark it. After a food has initially been opened and deemed safe, it should be used within seven days after opening and should be date-marked accordingly. If the product contains multiple ingredients, the date should be based upon the oldest ingredient. For example, if lasagna is being prepared Tuesday but includes ground beef prepared the Saturday prior, the date-mark should still be Friday, seven days after the ground beef was initially prepared.
Why are open dates printed if they are not required?
Although printing dates is not required by federal law, manufacturers choose to publish these dates to notify consumers when food is at its best quality. When assigning the dates, manufacturers consider the time and temperature at which the food is held, the type of packaging used, and the characteristics of the food itself. The quality of these products will begin to decline after the date passes. Consumers should check thoroughly for signs of spoilage when consuming after the date printed on the package.
Is food safe after the printed date?
Food may still be consumed after its “Use By” date, but proper care must be taken to ensure the food is safe. Foods are at higher risk for going rancid or spoiling. No amount of cooking or other food preparation techniques can guarantee the food will be safe. Check for changes in smell, texture, and taste as are indicators of whether the food is still consumable.
A note for commercial kitchens
Food establishments are held to a slightly different standard when it comes to expired food. Food managers are encouraged not to use food that has passed its expiration date.
Knowing these simple date-marking principles will help keep you and your customers safe. For more information and general food safety tips, check out our Food Handlers Course.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in April 2018 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.