Published on 11/06/02

What do the dates really mean?

By April Reese
University of Georgia

Old dates on food products may not mean the food should be tossed to the trash. A University of Georgia food specialist said some foods are good for longer.

"A sell-by, expiration or use-by date tells the store how long to display a product for sale," said Elizabeth Andress of the UGA Extension Service. "Buy a product before a sell-by date, but it is still safe to use (after then)."

Refrigerated properly, some foods stay fresh long after the sell-by or best-if-used-by date.

"Some foods, like fresh ground meats and fresh poultry, last one to two days after the sell-by date if kept properly refrigerated at all times," Andress said.

"Other foods such as beef or pork roasts may last three to four days after the sell-by date," she said. "A cured or precooked ham can last a week."

If a product has a use-by date, however, pay attention. "In particular, never buy or use baby formula or food after its use-by date," Andress warned.

Unlike the other labels, the use-by date it is the last day the manufacturer recommends for the safe use of a food product.

Dating Decoded

Some food labels say "sell by," while others print, "best if used by" or "use by" on the products. These labels mean different things.

"A best-if-used-by or best-if-used-before date is the date to use for eating the food at its best quality or flavor," Andress said. "It's not a purchase date or a date of final safety." A guaranteed-fresh-until date is the same thing.

"The manufacturer probably offers a reimbursement if the consumer is unsatisfied with the quality of the product before that date," she said. "Reading the label carefully will show this."

Unopened dry foods such as crackers, cookies or dry bean mixes can be microbiologically safe for several years after a best-if- used-by date, Andress said.

"Dry foods can develop changes in flavor, texture and appearance that may make them less desirable over time," she said. "Generally, it's good to use these items within several months of purchase."

Don't use canned foods, she said, if they're swollen, bulging, rusted, severely dented or if they have stained labels. Otherwise, store them in a dry, cool place.

Refrigerated foods with best-if-used-by dates are a little harder to predict.

"Milk and fresh yogurts should be used within several days to a week past their sell-by or best-if-used-by dates, as long as they look and smell good," she said. "Salad dressings may last for months with good quality."

There are other indicators of spoiled food.

"Foods can develop off odors, flavor or appearance due to spoilage bacteria," she said. "If a food has any of these characteristics, don't use it, regardless of the date on the package."

The right temperature

"Mishandling fresh foods can also change their safe storage time, regardless of package dates," Andress said. "Leaving perishable foods at room temperature or warmer for too long is one common way of mishandling food." (Perishable foods require refrigerated storage of 40 degrees or lower.)

Andress said people do many other things that will shorten a food's expected shelf life. Here are a few:

* Defrosting at room temperature more than 2 hours.

* Leaving foods out of coolers or refrigerators at picnics or parties.

* Taking too long to get refrigerated or frozen foods home and refrigerated after purchase.

* Using contaminated cutting boards or utensils.

What about eggs?

Eggs stay fresh long after they leave the supermarket cooler.

"If an egg carton has an expiration date printed on it, don't buy eggs after that date," Andress said. "It's the last day the store may sell the eggs as fresh."

"As long as you buy eggs before the expiration date, you should be able to safely use them for three to five weeks after the date," she said.

As with other perishable foods, though, get them from the store into your home fridge as quickly as you can.

(April Reese is a student writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)