According to the United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service, the dates listed on food products are intended to help the store determine how long to display the product for sale, and it can also help the consumer know the time limit to purchase or use the product at its best quality. As stated on their website, product dating is not generally required by Federal regulations. If a calendar date is used, it must express both the month and day of the month (and the year, in the case of shelf-table and frozen products). Additionally, there is no universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States. While 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".
Some take these dates very seriously while others may simply take note of them. Regardless of your personal beliefs on expirations dates, it's important to decode the lingo associated with our food and ensure that you are consuming products at their intended time.
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A "Sell-By" date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. Basically, "It's a stocking and marketing tool provided by food makers to ensure proper turnover of the products in the store so they still have a long self life after consumers buy them." Pay attention to this date though, because consumers often misinterpret this date to guide their buying decisions. According to the USDA, you should buy the product before this date expires.
A "Best if Used By" (or Before) is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not associated with a safety regulation.
A "Use-By" date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at its peak quality. This date was established by the product manufacturer and does not necessarily signal that the food is no longer safe to eat.
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Other dates associated with food labels:
"Guaranteed Fresh" date is typically used on bakery items. Although they will still be edible after the date listed, it will not be at its peak freshness.
"Closed or Coded Dates" are packing numbers for use by manufacturer. These might appear on shelf-table products such as cans and boxes of food. Can codes are packing codes that enable tracking of the product to interstate commerce, and "enables manufactures to rotate their stock as well as to locate their products in the event of a recall."