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Deciphering "Sell By" Dates

I'm very confused by the dates on food packages at the grocery store. I was reading the "sell by" dates on an egg carton, milk carton, and yogurt container in my refrigerator. All the dates have passed. What do these dates mean? Do I need to toss the foods?
Deciphering "Sell By" Dates

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With the exception of baby food and formula, the dates on food packages are meant for quality. Baby food has an "expiration date," so it should not be used past the date. However, most foods can be consumed for days or even weeks after the date on the package if they have been stored and handled safely from the store to your home.

Besides the product dates, you should use your other senses such as sight and smell to decide if any food is safe to eat. If you smell off-odors or see visible signs of spoilage such as mold, toss the foods.

"Sell by" dates are meant for use by grocery stores. After the "sell by" date, the store should pull the product from the shelf. Be sure that your refrigerator maintains food at 40 degrees or lower as measured by a refrigerator thermometer. If you travel a distance to the grocery store, bring a cooler and ice to keep you perishable foods, such as dairy and meat, cold.

  • Eggs: Properly stored eggs last three to five weeks beyond the date listed on the package. Instead of putting your eggs in the "egg compartment" in some refrigerator doors, keep them in the carton and store in the main area of your refrigerator.
  • Milk: When kept cold, milk maintains its flavor and safety five to seven days after the "sell-by" date. Milk is very perishable, though, so be sure you put the container back in the refrigerator right after you pour a glass.
  • Yogurt: When kept cold, yogurt can be eaten seven to 10 days beyond the date on the package. It may separate into layers, but you can stir the yogurt before eating. If you bought too much, keep in mind that yogurt can be frozen.

Julie Garden-Robinson, Food and Nutrition Specialist, NDSU Extension Service

Featured in Food Wise September 2014 Newsletter (PDF)

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