Decoding date labels on food is difficult indeed. Have you ever looked at those labels? Dates show up in a dizzying array of ways.
- “Sell By”
- “Best By”
- “Use By”
- “Enjoy By”
- “Expired” or “Exp”
Still others provide a readily understandable date, but with no explanation. Then there are the indecipherable series of numbers that may – or may not – be a date. and of course, there are other permutations and combinations
Plus some cans, boxes and cartons have no dates.
In my world throwing out cans and boxes of food with old dates has always a mitzvah or good deed. Especially toward the Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashanah, I “binge clean” my pantry and refrigerator the way other people binge Netflix. But as I began my yearly review of can, bottle, and box top dates, I wondered what all these dates mean – or don’t.
Next time I consider throwing out food or see the grocery clerk throwing cans into a dumpster, I’ll remember these facts.
5 Crucial Facts About Date Labels on Food
- There are no federal requirements for date labels on food, except for infant formula. There are voluntary federal guidelines and some states and even cities have food date labeling laws. However, 9 states do not require date labels on any foods.
- A “Sell By” date says nothing about how long consumers can safely keep the item or when its quality deteriorates. For example, the USDA (Department of Agriculture) says that for “highest quality” you should use (refrigerated) eggs within 3 to 5 weeks after you purchase them in a store and that expiration of the carton’s “Sell By” date is meaningless. After that 3-5 week period, the eggs may still be usable and tasty, even if not of the “highest quality.”
- In some states, stores can sell food after its “Sell By” date or “Best if Used By” date.
- There is no uniformity as to what a date label means in any event. If you don’t know how the manufacturer defines “best,” how does it help you to know when the items is “Best By?”
- Experts says “there is no direct correlation between food safety and date labels.” That advice comes from the Harvard Law Food and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council. They did a comprehensive report on food expiration dates. The USDA is even more explicit with regard to canned foods. “Canned foods are safe indefinitely as long as they are not exposed to freezing temperatures, or temperatures above 90 °F (32.2° C). If the cans look ok, they are safe to use. Discard cans that are dented, rusted, or swollen. High-acid canned foods (tomatoes, fruits) will keep their best quality for 12 to 18 months; low-acid canned foods (meats, vegetables) for 2 to 5 years.”
Does all this mean that you should ignore all the date labels?
Maybe not. But it does mean that you shouldn’t necessary throw something away, just because it is past its “Best By” date.
One helpful resource in deciding how long to keep food is a database hosted by the Food Marketing Institute. It allows you to search for the shelf life of a particular food by the type of food or category, both unopened and after opening.
I’ll still check the dates on my food labels, even if only from force of habit. I just hope my family isn’t looking over my shoulder as I blithely ignore the next “Best By” last month or even 6 months ago as I prepare dinner.