New York consumers got a wake-up call this month when Andy Campbell reported in The Brooklyn Paper that a Brooklyn Heights Key Food store that had been accused of extending “sell-by” dates on meat was not violating food code.

Campbell had earlier reported on the story of Marie Viljoen, who purchased a whole D’Artagnan chicken at the Key Food store last month and realized only after she had gotten the chicken home that there was a problem with it.

“I got it home [on May 12], cut off the wrapping and smelled something wrong immediately,” Viljoen told The Brooklyn Paper. “The ‘sell by’ date on the label said May 16. … But the dopes left the original ‘sell by’ sticker underneath it: May 5. Eleven days earlier.”

While consumers widely believe that sell-by dates are a tool for ensuring food safety and quality, Campbell talked with Jessica Ziehm from the New York Department of Agriculture and Markets, who inspected the Key Food store after Viljoen reported her experience.  “‘Sell-by’ dates are nothing but a tool for store managers,” she told him.

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.

D’Artagnan spokesperson Lily Hodge told the Huffington Post, “When made aware of the situation we immediately contacted the store in question. The very reason D’Artagnan puts dates on products in the first place is to preempt such practices.” 

Package Food Dates:  “Use By” or “Use Before” and What they Mean

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.