We all know about food “sell by” or “use by” labels and other expiration indicators on food. Sometimes people simply throw away and product that has passed one of these dates. But what most people don’t know is that food doesn’t necessarily become unsafe to eat just because it’s past the expiration date.
Most people don’t realize that a store can sell food past the expiration date printed on the label. Or that manufacturers only voluntarily stamp dates on foods. Most people just assume that stores and manufacturers are mandated by law to follow expiration date policies of some kind.
While the law states that foods must be wholesome and safe to eat, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration can act to remove a product that poses a danger, the agency doesn’t require dates on foods other than infant formula. And when dates are used, they’re determined by the manufacturer. That means that you need to become an educated consumer about dating guidelines to protect your health.
What’s called “open dating” is found mainly on perishable foods such as meat, eggs and dairy. “Closed” or “coded” dating is used on cans and boxes.
So, what do each of the “open” and “closed” dates mean? Here are some examples:
- Sell-By: Recommendation on how long the store should display the food.
- Best If Used by or Before: A recommendation for best flavor or quality
- Use-By: Last date for the foods best quality, but not a safety date
- Closed or Coded dates: Packing numbers used by the manufacturer and used in case of a recall
When buying eggs, look for cartons with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) shield and a 3-digit code that stands for what day of the year they were packed. For instance, January 1st is 001. Buy eggs within 45 days of the code date. If stamped, follow the “Sell-By” or “EXP” date on the carton. At home, place the egg carton in the coldest part of the refrigerator, not in the door. For best quality, eat eggs within three to five weeks of purchase.
It is always safest to take food home immediately after buying and refrigerate it.