Q: What is the difference between “sell by” and “best if used by” dates?

The “sell by” date is the last date the product may be sold. After that date, the product should not be on store shelves.

Most “sell by” dates are found on short shelf life products such as bakery items, meat and poultry, and milk.

Products with a “sell by” date are likely to be safe for some time after that date. However, consumers should not purchase any products AFTER the “sell by” date. The same applies to products with phrases such as “expiration,” “use by,” and “use before.”

The “best if used by,” “best before” and “best if used before” are dates that tell consumers how long the product will retain its best flavor or quality. What consumers really need to know is that these dates are related to quality, not safety. The product poses no health risks if it is consumed after the “best if used by” date.

The food is still safe to eat after the date, but it may have become stale or changed somewhat in taste and appearance, or have a lesser vitamin content than declared on the label. After this date, certain qualities – such as the ability of biscuit dough to rise – may have deteriorated; however, the product is still safe to consume.

Q: Why is this so confusing? Why can’t every food product have one date?

Since the average grocery store has more than 30,000 different food items which vary tremendously from short shelf life products to products whose quality and safety can last for years, a one size fits all scenario simply does not work. Food companies want to make sure that each product is dated according to the unique characteristics of that particular product. Dairy products should not be treated like poultry products, and poultry products should not be treated like dairy products. I think consumers not only understand this, but also appreciate it.

Moreover, the quality and safety of the product depends on how the consumer handles and prepares the product after he/she has purchased it. For example, if a person buys milk from the refrigerated section of their local grocery store with a certain “sell by” date but does not refrigerate the product once they get home; the product may not be safe to consume. Food safety, therefore, is really a partnership between the food industry and consumers. The food industry can not do it alone.

Q: What are “pack,” “closed,” “coded” or “code dated” packing dates? What do they mean?

“Pack,” “Closed,” “Coded,” and “Code Dated” represent the dates on which a food was packaged or processed and are used by manufacturers to track inventory, rotate their stock, or locate the product in the case of a suspected problem. “Pack,” “Closed,” “Coded,” or Code Dated” do not indicate freshness or quality of the product. This “closed” code also contains other information about the product including the establishment where the product was packed, the product contained therein (product, style of pack, packing medium), the year packed, the day packed, the line on which it was packed, and the period during which it was packed.

The dates that indicate freshness or quality — the “sell by” and “best if used by” dates — are placed clearly on food packages so that consumers can read them. Food manufacturers want consumers to have the information they need to judge the freshness and quality of the products they are purchasing.

Q: How should consumers store shelf stable foods to ensure their quality and safety?

Before opening, shelf stable foods should be safe unless the package has been damaged. After opening, these products should be stored in tightly closed containers. Depending on the nature of the product, some should be stored in the refrigerator, like tuna fish, other shelf stable foods like flour, can be stored at room temperature. Some shelf stable foods can last several years with absolutely no degradation of safety or quality. If the consumer has any doubts at all about how to store a particular shelf stable product, they should ask their grocer, or call the food company.

Q: How can consumers know which foods in the grocery store are safe?

All foods found on grocery store shelves — if they are sold before the “sell by” or “best if used by” dates — can be purchased with confidence that they pose no health risk and have suffered no deterioration of quality. All foods should be removed from grocers’ shelves long before they suffer any degradation of quality or safety.

Q: Why aren’t product dating regulations federally regulated?

Because so many products, particularly several shelf stable items, can last indefinitely, there is no federal requirement for product dating. However, some states require date marking for certain short shelf life products.

Some products may feature the date on which they were packaged. This is a marketing issue, not a safety or quality issue. For information on the nutritional quality, consumers should read the “Nutrition Facts” panel on all products.

Q: With all of the information available, consumers can easily get overwhelmed. What should consumers focus on?

Consumers should focus on two things: 1) If the food product has a “sell by” or “best if used by” date, and 2) the food product’s nutrition profile which is clearly described in the “Nutrition Facts” label.

There is plenty of information available on how long specific foods last, both before and after they have been opened. Ask you supermarket for this information, or call the “800” number listed on many food products. However, when in doubt, THROW IT OUT.