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What the dates on packaged food mean

They don't necessarily mean the food is inedible

By Karen Datko Sep 27, 2009 2:42PM

Anyone who has worked in a grocery store will tell you to look for the date on the package (and it's amazing how many shoppers don't). But what do terms like "sell by," "use by" and "expiration" mean about a product's freshness and safety?


They're not interchangeable, writes "vh" at Funny about Money in a post called "Is that bargain food safe to eat?" She adds that no matter what the date says, "If in doubt, throw it out."


According to Consumer Reports, the federal government requires only that poultry, infant formula and some baby food carry dates. Some states also have requirements.


Here's is what some of the dates mean:

  • "Use by" or "quality assurance" date: The food won't be at peak quality after that date.

  • "Sell by" or "pull": That's the date stores take products off the shelf, but it's anticipated you'll be storing it at home for a bit after that. Consumer Reports says milk is probably good for a week after the "sell by" date.

  • "Expiration date": That's the last day you should eat something, with one exception. CR says: "If you buy federally graded eggs before the expiration date (which must be no more than 30 days from when they were put in the carton), you should be able to use them safely for the next three to five weeks."

On some nonfood items, vh says, an expiration date can be a sales gimmick "to induce you to buy new packages of perfectly OK products (such as sunscreen) at regular intervals."


As for food, don't assume it was handled or stored properly before you bought it, vh says. If a can is bulging, has cracks at the seams, or spews stuff at you when you open it, toss it. If food smells bad or looks or tastes funny, throw it out. (For more about food safety, check out this government Web site.)


Published Nov. 13, 2008



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