NDSU Extension - Ramsey County


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What Does That Date Mean?

What Does That Date Mean?


          We’ve all seen them and tried to decode them – the date stamped on so many processed foods.  Does it mean the grocer should sell the item by that date?  If so, how long can I keep it?  Does the food suddenly go bad if kept past that date?

          A "Sell-By" date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. It guides the rotation of shelf stock and allows time for the product to be stored and used at home. The date is quality driven, not a food safety concern. You should purchase these products by the “Sell By” date.   Foods with “Sell-By” dates include milk, eggs, yogurt and vacuum packed meats.  How long is a food good past the “Sell-By” date? It depends on the type of food. The items that cause the most concern among shoppers include dairy products, eggs, meat and poultry.  For milk, for example, make sure you purchase the milk before this date. Take it straight home and refrigerate immediately at 40 degrees or lower. Don't leave it in the trunk of your car while you squeeze in a few more errands on the way home, and don't let it linger on the counter or table during a meal.  Under optimum conditions, milk should remain fresh up to 5 to 7 days beyond the "sell-by" date.

          A "Best if Used By (or Before)" date is a recommendation for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date. You’ll find “Best if Used By” dates on peanut butter, canned milk, powdered milk and some canned foods.

          A "Use-By" date is the last date recommended for use of the product while at peak quality. Other names also used include “Better if used by” and

“Better before”. A “Use By” date is often placed on non-perishable or shelf stable foods like cereal. While product may decline in flavor and quality, food should be safe after that date. This date is determined by the manufacturer based on analysis of the product throughout its shelf life.

          For most foods, an expiration date means the last date on which the product should be eaten or used. Eggs are the exception. If you buy federally graded eggs before the expiration date, you should be able to use them safely for the next 3 to 5 weeks.

          “Closed or coded dates” are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer. Examples include canned juices, vegetables and fruits, dried beans and rice.  In general, high-acid canned foods such as tomatoes, fruit juice and pineapple can be stored on the shelf for 12 to 18 months. Low-acid foods such as canned meats, poultry, fish and most canned vegetables will keep for 2 to 5 years, as long as the can is in good condition and has been stored in a cool, clean, dry place.

          Never use food from leaking, bulging, rusting or badly dented cans. To answer the "Is this stuff still good?" question with confidence, practice these four rules at your house:

1) Purchase fresh-dated products before the "sell-by" date.

2) Refrigerate perishable products promptly and use or freeze meat and poultry products before the "use-by" date.

3) Remember that product dating is a guide for quality, rather than safety.

4) These rules do not apply to infant formula and baby food which should not be used after the "use-by" date.

          If foods are mishandled, however, foodborne bacteria can grow and cause foodborne illness before or after the date on the package. For example, if hot dogs are taken to a picnic and left out several hours, they might not be safe if used thereafter, even if the date hasn't expired.

          All those dates are a useful tool for ensuring the food you and your family is eating is tasty and safe.


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