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Sell by? Use by? What’s a shopper to do?

Sorting through the meaning of food date labels.

Media contact:

Londa Nwadike
Consumer Food Safety Specialist
University of Missouri Extension
Phone: 913-307-7391
Email: LNwadike@k-state.edu

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – People are getting savvy about checking food labels for fat, calories and fiber, but labels such as “sell by” and “use by” can leave us guessing about whether to keep or toss food.

“The current system of food product dating in the U.S. can be confusing, and is not necessarily related to food safety,” says Londa Nwadike, extension food safety specialist for the University of Missouri and Kansas State University.

Shoppers sometimes shy away from buying a product because the “sell by” or “use by” date is close. Or they buy a product that they don’t use right away, only to notice later that the “sell by” date has come and gone. If unsure whether it’s safe to eat, the food is thrown away – sometimes unnecessarily, says Nwadike.

She gave tips to keep shoppers safe and cut food waste to a minimum.

1) Infant formula is the only food product on which expiration dates are federally regulated. Don’t buy or use baby formula after its “use by” date, for both safety and nutritional reasons.

2) Some states do require dating of certain foods, but other than infant formula, there is no regulated food dating system across the U.S. Some groups recommend standardizing the system used, but at this time, dates are put on products in a variety of ways. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides definitions for some terms used on food product labels:

· “Sell by” date: Tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before that date.

· “Best if used by (or before)” date: Recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

· “Use by” date: The last date recommended by the manufacturer for the use of the product while at peak quality.

These dates generally refer to food quality, rather than safety, Nwadike said. However, they can give a general idea of how long the food has been in the market.

3) Many canned foods are required to have a packing code that enables manufacturers to rotate their stock and locate their products in the event of a recall. These codes are not meant for consumers to interpret as use-by dates (unless they are clearly marked as a “use by” date).

4) The most important thing consumers can do to affect the amount of time they can safely keep and use food is to handle it properly:

· If perishable, take the food home immediately after purchase and refrigerate it at 40 F or below within two hours. Freeze it if you can't use it within recommended safe refrigerated storage times. Once a perishable product is frozen, microbial growth stops, so it will be as safe as it was when it went into the freezer.

· Store foods in the cupboard, refrigerator or freezer at the proper temperature and length of time. (See the MU Extension publication “Storing foods at home” (N358) at http://extension.missouri.edu/p/n358.)

· Do not leave perishable foods at room temperature more than two hours. If you know that a carton of milk has been sitting on the counter more than three hours, throw it out regardless of the date on the container.

· If the product has a use-by date on the package, follow that date to determine when to use it.

· Follow the handling and preparation instructions on the product label.

· Avoid cross-contamination and ensure proper sanitation.

· If the product shows visible mold, has off odors, the can is bulging or has other signs of spoilage, this may indicate that dangerous microorganisms are present. With such products, use the “If in doubt, throw it out” rule.

5) Be extra cautious with food to be consumed by vulnerable people such as young children, the elderly, pregnant women and individuals with compromised immune systems.

For USDA information on product dating, go to http://1.usa.gov/MWVr7D.

For more MU Extension resources on safe storage and handling of food, go to http://missourifamilies.org/foodsafety and http://extension.missouri.edu/preservation.

Story by Mary Lou Peter, K-State Research and Extension, mlpeter@ksu.edu.