Decoding Food Product Dates

— Written By N.C. Cooperative Extension

The following are dates you will find on product packaging:

• The sell-by date, which represents the last day that a manufacturer recommends their product be sold. It’s best to use the product by this date. How long the food is safe to eat and/or maintain a high quality after this date depends on the food. Once a food is opened, it frequently needs to be used more quickly than it would if it remained unopened.

• The use-by date represents how long a manufacturer believes their product is of optimal quality. It is not a purchase or safety date. Food may still be eaten after the use-by date, but depending on the product, there may be a noticeable decline in quality.

What factors MOST into the deterioration of food is what temperature it has been kept at in the refrigerator. Any refrigerator with a temperature warmer than 40°F may find milk/dairy products don’t last long – sour quickly after purchase. Temperatures warmer than 40°F also contribute to possible bacteria growth. Warmer than 40°F is in the “Danger Zone” for refrigerated foods.

If a product has been in and out of the refrigerator many times, and left out for long periods of time, those foods will also have a better chance of not being “good”, no matter what the date on the container says. Never leave food out for long periods of time.

There is nothing about the use-by or the sell-by date that will indicate the food is bad. You must look for signs, such as sourness or mold. Never eat foods where mold has developed on them. That is a clear indication the food is degrading and possibly contains bacteria. Don’t scoop the mold out and still eat the remainder. Mold spores will have proliferated the food whether you “see” the mold or not.

Using the Internet is another way to locate food product freshness information. Try to locate the website by typing www.(BrandName).com—that is, type the name of the brand between “www” and “.com”. Look for a “Contact” or an “Ask” section. You may find also find a tool-free number and e-mail access. Look for food safety questions and answers on-line from Cooperative Extension at “Is This Food Still Safe to Eat?”.

Eleanor Summers
Extension Agent
Family & Consumer Sciences