Food Dating (It's not all it's cracked up to be!)
The Better Life Experts | May 20, 2009

The United States Department of Agriculture provides important information in attempting to decipher some of the confusing phrases used by food manufacturers and providers. There is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States, but the following information is helpful for buying and eating food products in a safe manner.

• A "Sell-By" date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.

• A "Best if Used By (or Before)" date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

• A "Use-By" date is 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" are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer.

• A “Pack date” is required on egg cartons to identify the date the eggs were washed, graded and packed in the carton for shipping. All egg cartons bearing the USDA shield on them are required to display a pack date. According to the USDA, you should always purchase eggs before the "Sell-By" or "EXP" date on the carton. After the eggs reach home, refrigerate the eggs in their original carton and place them in the coldest part of the refrigerator, not in the door. For best quality, use eggs within 3 to 5 weeks of the date you purchase them. The "sell-by" date will usually expire during that length of time, but the eggs are perfectly safe to use.

• Beer companies were the first to use “Born-On” dates, signifying the freshness of the beer. Although beer is considered a food and is perishable, the companies are not legally required to use a “sell-by” date on the product. Although more beer companies are beginning to follow Anheuser-Busch in using a born-on date, the industry as a whole has a long way to go to assure the customer that the beer they buy is actually fresh.

• The term "Expiration Date" refers to the last date a food should be eaten or used. Last means last -- proceed at your own risk after that.

Except for infant formula and some baby food, product dating is not generally required by Federal regulations. Although dating of some foods is required by more than 20 states, there are areas of the country where much of the food supply has some type of open date and other areas where almost no food is dated.

"Open Dating" (use of a calendar date as opposed to a code) on a food product is a date stamped on a product's package to help the store determine how long to display the product for sale. It can also help the purchaser to know the time limit to purchase or use the product at its best quality. It is not a safety date. After the date passes, while not of best quality, many products should still be safe if handled properly and kept at 40 °F or below. If product has a "use-by" date, follow that date. If product has a "sell-by" date or no date, cook or freeze the product by the times listed on the chart below. “Open” dating is found primarily on perishable foods such as meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products. "Closed" or "coded" dating might appear on shelf-stable products such as cans and boxes of food.

Cans must exhibit a packing code to enable tracking of the product in interstate commerce. This enables manufacturers to rotate their stock as well as to locate their products in the event of a recall. These codes are usually a series of letters and numbers that are not intended to be used as a sell-by or use-by code. In fact, high-acid canned foods such as tomatoes, grapefruit and pineapple can be stored on the shelf 12 to 18 months, while low-acid canned foods such as meat, poultry, fish and most vegetables will keep 2 to 5 years — if the can remains in good condition and has been stored in a cool, clean, dry place.

STORAGE OF PROCESSED PRODUCTS SEALED AT PLANT

Processed Product Unopened, After Purchase After Opening

Cooked Poultry 3 to 4 days 3 to 4 days

Cooked Sausage 3 to 4 days 3 to 4 days

Sausage, Hard/Dry, shelf-stable 6 weeks/pantry 3 weeks

Corned Beef, uncooked, in pouch
with pickling juices 5 to 7 days 3 to 4 days

Vacuum-packed Dinners, Commercial
Brand with USDA seal 2 weeks 3 to 4 days

Bacon 2 weeks 7 days

Hot dogs 2 weeks 1 week

Luncheon meat 2 weeks 3 to 5 days

Ham, fully cooked 7 days slices, 3 days; whole 7days

Ham, canned, labeled "keep refrigerated" 9 months 3 to 4 days

Ham, canned, shelf stable 2 years/pantry 3 to 5 days

Canned Meat and Poultry, shelf stable 2 to 5 years/pantry 3 to 4 days



STORAGE OF FRESH OR UNCOOKED PRODUCTS

Product Storage Times After Purchase

Poultry 1 or 2 days

Beef, Veal, Pork and Lamb 3 to 5 days

Ground Meat and Ground Poultry 1 or 2 days

Fresh Variety Meats (Liver, Tongue, Brain, Kidneys, Heart, Chitterlings) 1 or 2 days

Cured Ham, Cook-Before-Eating 5 to 7 days

Sausage from Pork, Beef or Turkey, Uncooked 1 or 2 days

Eggs 3 to 5 weeks

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