Food Product Dating

"Sell by Feb 14" is a type of information you might find on a meat or poultry product. Are dates required on food products? Does it mean the product will be unsafe to use after that date? Here is some background information which answers these and other questions about product dating.

What Is Dating?

"Open Dating" (use of a calendar date as opposed to a code) on a food product 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. After the date passes, while not of best quality, the product should still be safe if handled properly and kept at 40 °F or below for the recommended storage times listed on the chart (see below). If product has a "use-by" date, follow that date. If product has a "sell-by" date or no date, cook or freeze the product by the times on the chart.

Is Dating Required by Federal Law?

Except for infant formula and some baby food (see below), product dating is not generally required by Federal regulations. However, if a calendar date is used, it must express both the month and day of the month (and the year, in the case of shelf-stable and frozen products). If a calendar date is shown, immediately adjacent to the date must be a phrase explaining the meaning of that date such as "sell-by" or "use before."

There is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States. Although dating of some foods is required by more than 20 states, there are areas of the country where much of the food supply has some type of open date and other areas where almost no food is dated.

What Types of Food Are Dated?

Open dating is found primarily on perishable foods such as meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products. "Closed" or "coded" dating might appear on shelf-stable products such as cans and boxes of food.

Types of Dates

  • A "Sell-By" date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.


  • A "Best if Used By (or Before)" date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.


  • A "Use-By" date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.


  • "Closed or coded dates" are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer.

Safety After Date Expires

Except for "use-by" dates, product dates don't always refer to home storage and use after purchase. "Use-by" dates usually refer to best quality and are not safety dates. But even if the date expires during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality -- if handled properly and kept at 40° F or below. See the accompanying refrigerator charts for storage times of dated products. If product has a "use-by" date, follow that date. If product has a "sell-by" date or no date, cook or freeze the product by the times on the chart.

Foods can develop an off odor, flavor or appearance due to spoilage bacteria. If a food has developed such characteristics, you should not use it for quality reasons.

If foods are mishandled, however, foodborne bacteria can grow and cause foodborne illness -- before or after the date on the package. For example, if hot dogs are taken to a picnic and left out several hours, they wouldn't be safe if used thereafter, even if the date hasn't expired.

Other examples of potential mishandling are products that have been: defrosted at room temperature more than two hours; cross contaminated; or handled by people who don't use proper sanitary practices. Make sure to follow the handling and preparation instructions on the label to ensure top quality and safety.

Dating Formula & Baby Food

Federal regulations require a "use-by" date on the product label of infant formula and the varieties of baby food under FDA inspection. If consumed by that date, the formula or food must contain not less than the quantity of each nutrient as described on the label. Formula must maintain an acceptable quality to pass through an ordinary bottle nipple. If stored too long, formula can separate and clog the nipple.

Dating of baby food is for quality as well as for nutrient retention. Just as you might not want to eat stale potato chips, you wouldn't want to feed your baby meat or other foods that have an off flavor or texture.

The "use-by" date is selected by the manufacturer, packer or distributor of the product on the basis of product analysis throughout its shelf life; tests; or other information. It is also based on the conditions of handling, storage, preparation and use printed on the label. Do not buy or use baby formula or baby food after its "use-by" date.



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