Food Safety in the Time of COVID-19: Dates on food products

With a ‘Safer at Home‘ order, many of us are looking to foods stocked in our pantries and cupboards to help feed our families. What do dates on food products tell us?

If the date is past, is the food still safe?  In most cases, yes! Dates on food package labels are generally quality dates, an indication to the consumer that if the product is stored properly that it will retain quality up until the date marked; dates on food packages are not safety dates.  These quality dates are mostly voluntary.

What type of dates might you see on packaged food?

  • A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires. These dates are ‘freshness’ dates and the product can generally be refrigerated and used within 3-5 days, or frozen for longer storage.
  • A “Best if Used By (or Before)” date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.These dates are found on canned soups, boxed meals, and many other grocery store items.
  • 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, but the product may be safe well past the date marked for peak quality.
  • Closed or coded dates” are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer.  Code dates are found on products like canned vegetables and help the manufacturer track production, they may also be used in the event of a product recall.

The one exception to these ‘dating rules’ is for infant formula. Federal regulations require product dating on infant formula, and consumers should not use infant formula that has expired. [See a previous blog post and use infant formula by the date stamped on the product.]

Where can I find more information?

The good news is that by realizing that food package dates are quality dates, not an indication of food safety, we can all help reduce food waste. For those working with food banks and food pantries a handout has been developed designed to guide decisions on food distribution to Reduce Food Waste.

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