The twentieth century ushered in the age of packaged foods, making use of preservatives and innovative packaging to lengthen the shelf-life of many foods. Most packaged foods include some type of expiration, sell-by or use-by date imprinted on the container. Figuring out the intent of that date is not always an easy matter. Even the general industry terms for it, open-dating and closed dating, raise questions.
( Expiration dating is not federally required on all products )
You may be surprised to learn that dating is not required by US federal law, with the exception of infant formula and baby foods which must be withdrawn by their expiration date. For all other foods, except dairy products in some states, freshness dating is strictly voluntary on the part of manufacturers. To further shake your confidence, stores are not legally required to remove outdated products from their shelves. So, it's the old caveat even when it comes to food: Buyer beware and always read the label.
Expiration date terminology:
(These terms all apply to unopened products.)
• Best if used by and use-by date: With emphasis on the best qualifier in this term, it means the product should retain maximum freshness, flavor and texture if used by this date. It is not a purchase-by or safety date. Beyond this date, the product begins to deteriorate, although it may still be edible.
• Expiration date: If you haven't used the product by this date, toss it out. Other dating terms are used as a basic guideline, but this one means what it says.
• Sell-by or pull-by date: This date is used by manufacturers to tell grocers when to remove their product from the shelves, but there is generally still some leeway for home usage. For example, milk often has a sell-by date, but the milk will usually still be good for at least a week beyond that date if properly refrigerated.
• Guaranteed fresh: This date is often used for perishable baked goods. Beyond this date, freshness is no longer guaranteed although it may still be edible.
• Pack date: This is the date the item was packed, most-used on canned and boxed goods. It is usually in the form of an encrypted code not easy to decipher. It may be coded by month (M), day (D), and year (Y), such as YYMMDD or MMDDYY. Or it may be coded using Julian (JJJ) numbers, where January 1 would be 001 and December 31 would be 365. In even more convoluted coding, letters A through M (omitting the letter I) are often assigned to the months, with A being January and M being December, plus a numeric day, either preceded or followed by the numeric year.
Next Discussion: All about Expiration, Use-by, and Sell-by Dates (Medications) »