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Expiration Dates

Production dates, shelf life, sell by dates, expiration dates and how to read them.

Food Product Dating

"Sell by Feb 14" is a type of information you might find on a meat or poultry product. Are dates required on food products? Does it mean the product will be unsafe to use after that date? Here is some background information which answers these and other questions about product dating.

What is dating?

"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 is not a safety date. After the date passes, while it may not be of best quality, refrigerated products should still be safe if they were handled properly and kept at 40 °F (4.4 oC) or below for the recommended storage times.

What types of food are dated?

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 or boxes of food.

Safety After Date Expires

Except for "use-by" dates, product dates do not always pertain to ship storage and use after purchase. "Use-by" dates usually refer to best quality and are not safety dates. Even if the date expires during ship storage, a product should still be safe, wholesome and of good quality if handled properly. See the accompanying refrigerator charts for storage times of dated products. 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 according to the times on the chart below.

Foods can develop an off odor, flavor or appearance due to a spoilage by bacteria. If a food has developed such characteristics, you should not use it for quality reasons.

If foods are mishandled, however, foodborne bacteria can grow and – if pathogens are present, cause foodborne illness before or after the date on the package. For example, if hot dogs are left out for a several hours they will not be safe to consume even if the date hasn't expired.

Other examples of potential mishandling are products that have been: defrosted at room temperature more than two hours; cross contaminated; or handled by people who do not practice good sanitation. Make sure to follow the handling and preparation instructions on the label to ensure top quality and safety.

Types of Dates

A "Sell-By" date informs 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.
·Once a perishable product is frozen, it doesn't matter if the date expires because foods kept frozen continuously are safe indefinitely.

Dates on Egg Cartons

Use of either a "Sell-By" or "Expiration" (EXP) date is not federally required, but may be State required, as defined by the egg laws in the State where the eggs are marketed. Some State egg laws do not allow the use of a "sell-by" date.
Egg cartons with the USDA grade shield on them must display the "packing date" (the day that the eggs were washed, graded, and placed in the carton). This number is a three-digit code that represents the consecutive days of the year starting with January 1 as 001 and ending with December 31 as 365. When a "sell-by" date appears on a carton bearing the USDA grade shield, the code date may not exceed 45 days from the date of pack.

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.

How to read a Date Code

The U.S. does not have a uniform system of coding expiration dates on food products as of 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Dating on food products is voluntary. Open dating uses calendar dates and closed, or coded, dating is a process used by manufacturers to help with managing inventory. Closed coding is used on products with longer shelf lives. The USDA notes that while closed codes could refer to manufacturing date, the codes are not intended for consumer use and no single translation source exists.

Methods to Determine Expiration Date

Locate the code on the product packaging. The codes, which might resemble a number like “2061” or “0195,” are usually stamped on the top or bottom of a can. Manufacturers vary in listing the year or month first and some add numbers to the code that are not related to the date.

Check the code to see if numbers are used to represent months. If the code uses numbers, the numbers 1 through 9 represent the months of January to September. The letter O represents October, N represents November and so on. Some manufacturers use a number to represent the year, such as 8 for 1998 and 2 for 2002. Using these coding examples, 2061 translates to “2” for the month of February, “06” for the sixth day of the month and and so on.

If the code uses letters, the letter A represents January and each subsequent letter represents the next month, ending with L for December.

If the manufacturer uses a Julian date, which is a number that states the number of days since the first day of the current year. If Julian date used, the code 0195 will translate the number 0 for the year 2000 and 195 for the Julian date, since July 14 is the 195th day of the year.

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