Understanding the Dates on Food Packages

While consumers are studying the ingredients and nutritional information on the labels of the items on their grocery lists, there is another detail they also should check. Knowing the meaning of the “sell-by,” “best-if-used-by,” and “use-by” dates stamped on packaging, including perishables, will help ensure shoppers are purchasing and consuming food at their peak freshness.
Understanding these common terms will help cut the risk of eating potentially spoiled foods, as well as limit the amount of food you throw away. “Sell-by” dates tell the store how long to display the product for sale. Products with sell-by dates should be purchased before the date expires.
A “best-if-used-by” date is a recommendation for best flavor or quality, while the “use-by” date is the last day recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality.
The product’s manufacturer sets the “best-if-used-by” and “use-by” dates. Only “use-by” dates extend to home storage and use after that product has been purchased.
Usually all these dates refer to best quality, not food safety. A product should be perfectly safe for use even if the date has expired while at home on your shelf or in your refrigerator, as long as it is handled and stored properly.
As a general rule, refrigerated foods should be kept at 40 F or below.
Consumers should follow “use-by” dates. Fresh or uncooked food items with “sell-by” dates or no date should be cooked or frozen using the following guidelines:
• Poultry: Within one or two days
• Beef, veal, pork and lamb: Three to five days
• Ground meat and poultry: One or two days
• Cooked, cured ham: Five to seven days
• Sausage from pork, beef or turkey: One or two days
• Eggs: Three to five weeks

When it comes to eggs, cartons stamped with the USDA grade shield must display the “pack date,” a three-digit code representing the consecutive day of the year starting with January 1 as 001 and ending with December 31 as 365. The code date may not exceed 45 days from the date of packing shown on cartons stamped with “sell-by” dates and the USDA grade shield.
Always purchase eggs before the sell-by or expiration date. Refrigerate them in their original carton and store them in the coldest part of the refrigerator. For best quality, use them within three to five weeks of the date you purchased them.

Finally, most canned goods display calendar dates. These dates usually are considered best-if-used-by dates to help ensure peak quality. Generally, high-acid foods such as tomatoes and pineapple will retain best quality on the shelf for 12 months to 18 months, while low-acid foods will retain best quality on the shelf for two years to five years.

Whether we’re talking fresh foods or canned goods, the importance of food safety can’t be overlooked. Proper handling and storage make all the difference.

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