On Nutrition by Ed Blonz

Label Dates: Parsing ‘Sell By,’ ‘Use By’ and ‘Best Before’

DEAR DR. BLONZ: Whenever our grandchildren come to visit, they immediately launch into this game where they go through the refrigerator and all our cabinets and try to find foods that are out of date. It is something that my daughter taught them and encourages them to do. (They found us eating something out of date at one visit.) The kids check the “sell by” dates of our canned goods and dairy products and toss anything that has expired. I have found, or should I say “not found,” eggs just over the line, and was unsure whether they were still safe. Aren’t some of these items still usable for some time after the dates have passed? -- A.G., Walnut Creek, California

DEAR A.G.: The breakdown of food is a gradual process and does not take place on one particular day. The accuracy of any dating system relies on the proper handling of foods from field to plate. If there’s been any mishandling by the manufacturer, trucker, supermarket or consumer, the flavor and safety of the product can be compromised.

The presence of all these variables means that these are not precise systems; what we sense with our eyes, nose and palate should overrule any freshness dates on a product. Unfortunately, there is no one federal standard for food dating, so we have to cope with a variety of different systems on products. The various systems provide instructions for the retailer and the consumer.

“Sell by” dates are for the retailer, and represent the last date at which the product should appear on the supermarket shelf. Perishable foods such as dairy products, meats and bread use this method for freshness dating. The “sell by” date allows time for normal home use. Let your daughter and grandkids know that properly stored eggs, for example, can be good for four to six weeks after their “sell by” date.

An “expiration,” “use by,” or “do not use after” date represents the last date at which the product would be of sufficient quality to be consumed, according to the manufacturer/producer. This does not necessarily mean the item will become dangerous after that point; it represents the producers’ advisory that it might not be of the same quality as when it was made. For example, yeast or refrigerated dough products might not rise as expected if used beyond the expiration date.

If you are going to buy their foods, manufacturers want you to enjoy them so you’ll become a repeat customer. As a result, most foods contain some sort of freshness date, as this is the manufacturer’s estimate of the last date at which their product will have retained its flavor and quality. These items are marked with “best if used by,” or similar terminology. Soft drinks, for example, tend to lose flavor over time, so their freshness date tells you when they are at their best. Cereals and canned goods also use this type of dating.

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