Understanding Food Date Labels

Billions of pounds of food are thrown away each year, and a large contributing factor is due to confusing dates on food products. Expiration date labeling for food is not as neatly regulated as many think. There are a number of standard labels that say things like “use by,” “best before,” “sell by,” etc… But what do these labels really mean? Often not knowing leads us to needlessly throw away 40% of the food we buy- which is unfortunate for both our environment and wallets. To help in understanding expiration date labels, here are some tips to terms to know:

flickr: Sean Lamb

flickr: Sean Lamb

  • “Sell by” date- The matter here refers to quality such as freshness, taste, and consistency, rather than whether the food item about to spoil. This label is more for the retailer than the consumer. It basically tells the store how long they should display the product before pulling the item. The label is a guideline and not mandatory restriction. For the freshest food items, reach for the back.
  • “Best if used by (or before)” date- This label strictly referring to quality, not safety. This date is recommended for best taste or quality.
  • “Born on” date- This is the date of manufacture and is found on beer bottles and cans. The quality of beer can go sub-par after three months, and that’s why beer manufacturers use this label.
  • “Guaranteed fresh” date- This label is usually used for bakery items. The product will still be edible after the printed date, but it just won’t be at its peak freshness.
  • “Use by” date- This is the last date the manufacturer recommends for using the product while at peak quality. (*Author’s note– This label is the closest thing to an “expiration date” so far. I don’t want to kill anybody, but from my from my guess—without any scientific research—I would say the item is mostly still edible a couple of days after the printed date. The date decided by the manufacturer is probably very conservative because they don’t want to kill anybody either. But please, use your best judgment when eating food past the “Use by” date. Eat at your own risk!)
  • “Pack” date- This label is used for canned/packaged foods. It tells when the food was packaged, but figuring out the date can be tricky because it’s usually written in code. Sometimes it could be month-day-year like MMDDYY. Other times, the manufacturer could use the Julian calendar. The calendar date in which I wrote this blog post, 6/15/14, would be 2456823.69635 in the Julian calendar. It also could get wackier than that.

By Brian Van



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