The first thing you may notice as you’re going through through your pantry, is that product date codes come in a variety of formats. This is because there is no uniform system or federal regulation in the United Sates for food dating. One exception, however, requires any products with a calendar date to include a description of what the date means. You’ll see “use by,” “sell by,” “best if used by” or something similar.
So what’s the difference between the types of dates and what do they mean for consumers? According to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service:
“Best if Used By (or Before)” date - Refers to the recommended date for best flavor or quality. These products can still be purchased and used safely after the listed date.“Sell by” date - Tells the store how long to display the product for sale. Consumers should purchase the product before the date, but the product can still be used after provided it was properly stored.
“Use-By” date - The last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.
“Closed or coded dates” - Packing numbers for use by the manufacturer. They appear as a series of letters and/or numbers, and refer to the date or time of manufacture.
Food safety microbiologist and author Phyllis Entis, who runs the food safety blog eFoodAlert, says in addition to the multiple types of codes and meanings, consumers face other problems when dealing with product dates.
“Date codes apply to food packages that have not been opened. For example, a carton of milk that has been pasteurized using UHT technology may have a 2 or 3 month life, but the usable life shrinks dramatically as soon as the carton has been opened. Some consumers may not realize this.”
Entis also says storage conditions play a large role in determining the usable life of a product. Storing items in a cool, clean and dry place, or freezing products before the expiration date will help retain best quality for longer periods of time. Likewise, mishandling can cause food to spoil before its “use by date.”
So you’ve got some items in your pantry that are past the date but have been stored properly – are they still safe to eat?
“The “date codes” for shelf-stable products often are arbitrary or are based on physical or chemical changes to the food over time,” says Entis.
“These affect the taste and texture, not the safety of the food.”
Still, Entis suggests making a case-by-case decision based on the age, how it was stored, and whether the package is in good condition.
She also warns that some pathogens, including Salmonella and Bacillus cerus, can survive in dry foods at room temperature. So if you’re ever unsure of the safety of a food item in your fridge or pantry, the old adage still rings true:
When in doubt, throw it out.