Understanding Product Labeling and Expiration Dates

With the exception of infant formula, federal regulations in the U.S. generally do not require most products to display a use-by or expiration date. However, many perishable foods such as meat, poultry, eggs and dairy display what is known as open dating, which is a calendar date by which the product should be purchased and/or used. Several U.S. states mandate this type of labeling for several food types, including eggs.

You may see three types of open dating on a product label:

  • Sell By: This date serves as a guide, mostly so stores know how long to display a product for sale. Purchase products before the sell-by date has expired.
  • Best Before or Best if Used By: For the best quality and flavor, products should be consumed by the posted best-before date. This date is not a purchase-by date or a safety guideline.
  • Use By: A use-by date usually refers to the last date a food item can be consumed while still at peak quality. If you can’t use the food item before this date, freeze the unused portion if possible. Don’t purchase any foods that are past the use-by date, especially items such as baby food and baby formula.

Product Safety after Expiration Dates

If you have a product in your home that is past the posted use-by date, it may still be safe to use or consume if it was properly handled from the point of purchase. If perishable goods that require refrigeration display a use-by date, follow that date. If a product has a sell-by date or no date, cook or freeze the product according to our food storage charts.

If foods are mishandled, foodborne bacteria can grow and cause food poisoning even before the date on the package. To avoid the potential for food poisoning, shop smart and buy groceries last  so that you can take them home immediately after purchasing. Refrigerate or freeze perishable foods promptly by the use-by date shown on the product’s label.

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