Here is some background information which answers these and other questions about product dating.
What is Dating?
“Open Dating” (use of a calendar date as opposed to a code) on a food product is a date stamped on a product’s package to help the store determine how long to display the product for sale. It can also help the purchaser to know the time limit to purchase or use the product at its best quality. It is not a safety date. After the date passes, while not of best quality, the product should still be safe if handled properly and kept at 40 °F or below for the recommended storage times listed on the chart (see below). If product has a “use-by” date, follow that date. If product has a “sell-by” date or no date, cook or freeze the product by the times on the chart below.
What Types of Food Are Dated?
Open dating is found primarily on perishable foods such as meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products. “Closed” or “coded” dating might appear on shelf-stable products such as cans and boxes of food.
Types of Dates
- A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.
- A “Best if Used By (or Before)” date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
- A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.
- “Closed or coded dates” are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer.
Except for “use-by” dates, product dates don’t always refer to home storage and use after purchase. “Use-by” dates usually refer to best quality and are not safety dates. But even if the date expires during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality if handled properly and kept at 40 °F or below. See the accompanying refrigerator charts for storage times of dated products. If product has a “use-by” date, follow that date. If product has a “sell-by” date or no date, cook or freeze the product by the times on the chart below.
Foods can develop an off odor, flavor or appearance due to spoilage bacteria. If a food has developed such characteristics, you should not use it for quality reasons.
If foods are mishandled, however, foodborne bacteria can grow and cause foodborne illness — before or after the date on the package. For example, if hot dogs are taken to a picnic and left out several hours, they might not be safe if used thereafter, even if the date hasn’t expired.
Other examples of potential mishandling are products that have been: defrosted at room temperature more than two hours; cross contaminated; or handled by people who don’t practice sanitation. Make sure to follow the handling and preparation instructions on the label to ensure top quality and safety.
Cans must exhibit a packing code to enable tracking of the product in interstate commerce. This enables manufacturers to rotate their stock as well as to locate their products in the event of a recall.
These codes, which appear as a series of letters and/or numbers, might refer to the date or time of manufacture. They aren’t meant for the consumer to interpret as “use-by” dates. There is no book or Web site that tells how to translate the codes into dates.
Cans may also display “open” or calendar dates. Usually these are “best if used by” dates for peak quality.
In general, high-acid canned foods such as tomatoes, grapefruit and pineapple will retain best quality on the shelf for 12 to 18 months; low-acid canned foods such as meat, poultry, fish and most vegetables will retain best quality on the shelf for 2 to 5 years — if the can remains in good condition and has been stored in a cool, clean, dry place.