Understanding The Expiration Dates On Food

By:    Published: September 6, 2012

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The expiration dates on food can be a bit confusing. Does the date imply when a food is considered unsafe? Food dating is when a date stamp is applied to a food product’s packaging, allowing the store to determine the length of time that they can safely offer the food product for sale. There are different categories of food dating, with open dating being the most common.

What Is Open Food Dating?

Open food dating is helpful for consumers, in that it can help them determine a safe date that the food should be purchased by before the quality of the food begins to deteriorate. Open dating does not provide a safety date, just a “use-by” or “sell-by” date that suggests when the food will no longer be of the highest quality. The product is likely still safe to consume after the open date has passed, as long as the consumer handles and stores the food properly and safely.

Open food dating is primarily used on foods that are perishable, such as dairy products, eggs, poultry and meats. For non-perishable foods, such as cans, boxes and other shelf-stable products, closed dating or coded dating is often used.

What About Closed Food Dating?

Closed dating, also referred to as coded dating, is the common type of dating used for non-perishable, shelf-stable food products, such as boxes and cans. The dating technique consists of packing numbers that are used by the manufacturer. There is no universal standard coding system in place, so it can be difficult to crack the code on closed dating, especially for canned goods. Additional measures are sometimes necessary to help consumers determine if canned goods are safe to eat and of high quality.

Types Of Food Dating

There are several different types of food dating that can be used by manufacturers. The type that is used generally depends on the type of food. The basic food dating types are:

  • Sell-by Date. This is a date that notifies the store of the length of time that the food product should be displayed for sale. Most times it refers to the safety date of the food, so the food should be purchased before that sell-by date expires.
  • Best if Used By Date, or Before Date. This is a date that notifies the consumers of the time period in which the food is of the best quality. It has nothing to do with the safety of the food, or when it should be sold by.
  • Use-By Date. This is a date that is used to determine the absolute last day that a food product is considered to be at its highest quality. The food manufacturer determines the date and places it on the food to notify the store and the consumers.
  • Closed Date or Coded Date. This is the date used in the packing numbers placed on the food product by the manufacturer. This date may be separate or part of the Universal Product code (UPC) that manufacturers display on foods.

How To Read Dating Codes On Canned Goods

Many consumers have difficulty reading food dating codes on canned foods. In fact, most people believe these are expiration dates on their food. All canned foods are required to display a packing code that allows the product to be tracked through interstate commerce. This packing code allows the food manufacturers to rotate their supply and also enables them to quickly locate the canned food if a recall event were to take place.

The codes are displayed as a series of numbers, letters or a combination of both. They may refer to the date that the food was processed or the time it was manufactured. Consumers should not mistake these codes as use-by dates or expiration dates. In addition to these packing codes, many canned foods will exhibit an open date. This will generally act as a best-if-used-by date that helps to determine the time frame in which the food maintains the highest level of quality.

As a general rule of thumb, high acidic canned foods, such as tomatoes and pineapples, have a best quality shelf-life of 12-18 months. Canned foods that are not very acidic, such as meats, vegetables, fish and poultry will have a bet quality shelf-life of 2-5 years, provided that the can remains intact, in good condition, free from dents or damage and is stored in a cool, dry area.

Is Food Dating Required By Law?

With the exception of baby food and infant formula, food dating is, generally, not a Federal requirement. Federal regulations do state that if a calendar date is used to date food, it must clearly state the month and the day of the month. For non-perishable, shelf-stable foods and frozen foods, the year must also be included. Regulations also require that a meaning of the date must be displayed next to the date, such as sell by or use before.

Federal regulations require manufacturers of infant formula and baby food to include a use by date on the product label. The food is required to contain no less than the nutritional value of each nutrient listed on the label if the food is consumed by the use by date that is displayed.

Tips To Remember

When it comes to understanding food dating, there are some safety tips and quality guidelines that consumers can follow. The Canned Food Alliance recommends that to maintain the highest quality, all canned foods should be consumed within two years of manufacturing. Consumers should pay attention to all food dating displays and consume the food within the recommended timeframe to ensure the highest quality and maintain high safety standards. Canned foods should always be stored in a clean, cool, dark place away from direct heat and sunlight. Prior to opening canned foods, be sure to wipe the top of the can with a damp cloth to remove dust, debris and any residue that may have accumulated during storage.

How To Learn About Dating From Company Websites

Consumers can use the Internet to find additional information about food dating for specific food products. Many food manufacturers include their website address on the product label. If the website is not displayed, consumers can attempt to locate the website by searching the Internet.

Are Foods Safe Past The Expiration Date?

Expiration dates are much less common than use-by dates or best-quality dates. For this reason, when a date on a canned food expires while stored at home, there’s a good chance that the food is still safe to consume, as long as it was handled and stored properly. Bacteria can develop in foods, including canned foods. When spoilage bacteria are present, the food will put off an offensive odor, flavor or appearance. If this occurs, the food is not of good quality and may be unsafe.

Foodborne bacteria can develop in foods when they are handled improperly, which can lead to foodborne illness if the food is consumed. This can occur even if the food has not passed the expiration or use by date. This commonly happens when food is defrosted at room temperature rather than in the refrigerator, or if food is cross-contaminated.

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