About The Buzz: Food Labeling Makes The “Use By” Date Confusing?

TheBUZZ: Food labeling makes the "use by" date confusing?

With all of the dates posted on food products, it’s hard to know when they are no longer safe to eat.


It is a question many of us try to answer every day, "How long is food edible after purchase and what do all of the dates posted on products really mean?" Most foods have three (3), and sometimes four (4), dates visible on them …

  1. Sell By Date The last day a retailer can display a product for sale.
  2. Use By Date The last day a product will maintain its optimum freshness, flavor, and texture. Beyond this date, the product begins to deteriorate although it is still edible.
  3. Expiration Date Means what it says – if you haven’t used a product by this date, toss it.
  4. Closed or Coded Dates Packing numbers for use by the manufacturer.

So how can you tell if a food item has spoiled if no date is posted? Trust your nose and eyes. If it looks or smells funny, throw it out. If you see mold, it’s too old!

What about fruits and vegetables, which don’t usually have "sell by" dates? While each type and form of fruit of vegetable can very, there are a few general rules …

    • Fresh Use within a few days.
    • Frozen Use within 6 months.
    • Canned Usually have an expiration date, but typically have a shelf-life of up to 2 years.
    • Dried Most last between 4 months and a year.
    • 100% Juice Most are marked with expiration date.


According to the USDA, the only food products that are required by federal law to have dates are infant formula and some baby foods. All other foods may use what is known as open dating. Open dating is a date stamped on a product’s package to help the store determine how long to display the product for sale. It can also help the purchaser to know the time limit to purchase or use the product at its best quality. It is not a safety date. Open dating is found primarily on perishable foods such as meats, poultry, eggs and dairy products. There is not a uniform or universally-accepted system used for food dating in the United States.


Great-tasting fruits and vegetables begin with proper storage at home. Just remember the FIFO rule: First In, First Out. Use whatever is oldest first and continually rotate your stock to ensure freshness and reduce waste. In general, you can use these storage rules for fruits and veggies …

    • Fresh Visit our Fruit & Veggie Database for storage information on specific fruits and vegetables.
    • Frozen Store at 0°F or less.
    • Canned Store at room temperature (about 75°F).
    • Dried Store in a cool, dark place. Some dried foods may be refrigerated (check the package).

To find out more information about labeling and storage recommendations for all foods visit the USDA’s website.

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