According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), there is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States.  More than 20 states require dating of certain foods, but other states do not require any food dating.  With the exceptions of infant formula and some baby food, product dating is not generally required by Federal regulations.

Package Food Dates:  “Use By” or “Use Before”

Some food manufacturers use “open dating,” or calendar dates stamped on a food product’s package, to help retailers determine how long to display a product for sale.  If an open date is shown on a product, both the month and day of the month (and year for shelf-stable and frozen products) must be displayed on the product packaging.  Immediately adjacent to the date a phrase explaining the meaning of the date such as “sell by” or “use before” must be displayed.  

The date does not correspond to the date by which the product must be consumed to ensure food safety; rather, the date is indicated for product quality.

Open dating is typically found on perishable foods such as meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products.  After an open date passes, food may not be at the best quality, but products should still be safe if handled properly and stored at proper temperatures.  If the product has a “use-by” date, the product should be consumed or frozen by that date.  

According to the USDA, even if a use-by date expires during home storage, “a product should be safe, wholesome, and of good quality – if handled properly and kept at 40F or below.”  If food develops an off odor, flavor, or appearance due to spoilage bacteria, the food should be discarded for quality reasons.

Foodborne bacteria can grow and cause foodborne illness before or after the date on the package if foods are mishandled.  Food, such as meat, left out at room temperature for more than two hours could become unsafe, even if the date on packaging hasn’t expired.

In the case of infant formula, if stored too long, it can separate and clog the nipple.  Baby food stored for too long may lose nutrients.  Do not buy or use baby formula or baby food after its “use-by” date.

Can Codes:  A tool for recalls and inventory control

Food cans must display packing codes to enable tracking in the event of a recall.  They also enable manufacturers and retailers to rotate their stock.  The codes, which appear as a series of letters and/or numbers, can refer to the date or time of manufacture.  They are not intended for consumers to interpret.  

Some cans also display open dating, which usually are “best if used by” dates for peak product quality.  

According to the USDA, “In general, high-acid canned foods such as tomatoes, grapefruit, and pineapple can be stored on the shelf 12 to 18 months; low-acid canned foods such as meat, poultry, fish and most vegetables will keep 2 to 5 years – if the can remains in good condition and has been stored in a cool, clean, dry place.”

Egg Carton Dating:  Pack date indicates freshness    

While the use of a “sell-by” or expiration date is not federally required on egg cartons, such labeling is required by some state laws and is not allowed by other state laws.  

Egg cartons with a USDA grade shield on them must display the “pack date,” or date that the eggs were washed, graded, and placed in the carton.  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 the eggs were packed.  

USDA advises consumers to use eggs within three to 5 weeks of purchase, and states, “The ‘sell-by’ date will usually expire during that length of time, but the eggs are perfectly safe to use.”  

UPC Use:  Scanning for price, inventory, and marketing

Universal Product Codes (UPC codes), or bar codes, appear on most packaged product labels because scanners can “read” them quickly to record the price of the product.  UPC codes are used not only for pricing, but to help manufacturers record inventory levels and track sales for marketing purposes.  The numbers associated with UPC codes are not included for product recall identification purposes.

Safe Food Storage:  USDA recommendations

USDA offers the following food storage tips for the safe use of products:

  • Purchase the product before the date on the label expires
  • Refrigerate perishable foods promptly after purchase.  Freeze products if you cannot use them within the recommended time period (below).
  • Foods kept frozen continuously are safe indefinitely.
  • Follow safe food handling recommendations on product labels.

For fresh or uncooked products, USDA recommends the following storage times after purchase:

  • Poultry:  1-2 days
  • Beef, Veal, Pork, and Lamb:  3-5 days
  • Ground Meat and Ground poultry:  1-2 days
  • Fresh Variety Meats (Liver, tongue, Brain, Kidneys, Heart, Chitterlings):  1-2 days
  • Cured Ham, Cook-Before-Eating:  5-7 days
  • Sausage from Pork, Beef, or Turkey, Uncooked:  1-2 days
  • Eggs:  3-5 weeks

For processed products sealed at the plant before reaching a retailer USDA recommends the following storage times:

  • Cooked Poultry:  3-4 days if unopened, after purchase; 3-4 days after opening
  • Cooked Sausage:  3-4 days if unopened, after purchase; 3-4 days after opening
  • Sausage, Hard/Dry, shelf-stable:  6 weeks in the pantry if unopened, after purchase; 3 weeks after opening
  • Corned Beef, uncooked, in pouch with pickling juices:  5-7 days if unopened, after purchase; 3-4 days after opening
  • Vacuum-packed Dinners, Commercial Brand with USDA seal:  2 weeks if unopened, after purchase; 3-4 days after opening
  • Bacon:  2 weeks if unopened, after purchase; 7 days after opening
  • Hot dogs:  2 weeks if unopened, after purchase; 1 week after opening
  • Lunch meat:  2 weeks if unopened, after purchase; 3-5 days after opening
  • Ham, fully cooked:  7 days if unopened, after purchase; slices 3 days, whole 7 days after opening
  • Ham, canned, labeled “keep refrigerated”:  9 months if unopened, after purchase; 3-4 days after opening
  • Ham, canned, shelf stable:  2 years in the pantry if unopened, after purchase; 3-5 days after opening
  • Canned Meat and Poultry, shelf stable:  2-5 years in the pantry if unopened, after purchase; 3-4 days after opening

Always remember, when in doubt . . . throw it out!