Food freshness: What those dates really mean

Here a rundown on the dates you find on food labels and what those dates mean, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

“Packed On”

The following outlines what you can assume based on the "packed on" date:

  • This refers to the date the food was packaged.
  • It doesn’t indicate the date the food was picked in the case of fruits and vegetables, or processed in the case of other food.
  • Frozen foods are best used within two months of a pack date.
  • Canned foods should be used within a year of the pack date.

“Best if Used By” or “Use By”

This is the last date the product will have the highest quality. In most cases, however, it can be safely consumed past that date. For example, if the date is on a box of cereal or a bag of rice, eating the product after the date won’t hurt you, but the taste may suffer.

“Sell By”

What you can tell by reading the "sell by" date includes:

  • This is the last date the product should be sold. It’s also the “pull” date, after which the product should be taken off the store shelf.
  • These dates are found on breads, dairy products, cold cuts, and fresh fruit juices.
  • Most foods that are past their sell-by date can still be safely eaten after this date. For example, milk stays fresh for about a week after the sell-by date if properly refrigerated. Fresh fish, meat, and poultry should be eaten within a day or two past the sell-by date, or it can be frozen.

“Expiration,” “Exp” or “Not to Be Sold After”

The following outlines what you can assume based on the "expiration" date or "not to be sold after" date:

  • This is the last date the food is safe to eat.
  • These dates are often found on yeast, dairy products, and baby formula.
  • Eggs are an exception and may be used safely for a month after the expiration date if they have been refrigerated properly.

Dates with no qualifier

Dates on food products that don’t indicate they refer to any of the categories above usually refer to a sell-by date.

Safety and quality concerns

Pay close attention to the following:

  • Never eat food from a bulging can, no matter what the date. The food is likely contaminated and you could get food poisoning.
  • Put dates on foods you repackage and freeze. Most foods can be safely frozen for months, but the quality and flavor of meat, fish, and poultry are likely to deteriorate.

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