Interpreting Dates on Food Products (cont.)

What Do Can Codes Mean?

Cans must exhibit a packing code to enable tracking of the product in interstate commerce. This enables manufacturers to rotate their stock as well as to locate their products in the event of a recall.

These codes, which appear as a series of letters and/or numbers, might refer to the date or time of manufacture. They aren't meant for the consumer to interpret as "use-by" dates. There is no book which tells how to translate the codes into dates.

Cans may also display "open" or calendar dates. Usually these are "best if used by" dates for peak quality.

In general, high-acid canned foods such as tomatoes, grapefruit and pineapple can be stored on the shelf 12 to 18 months; low-acid canned foods such as meat, poultry, fish and most vegetables will keep 2 to 5 years -- if the can remains in good condition and has been stored in a cool, clean, dry place.

Dates on Egg Cartons

Use of either a "Sell-By" or "Expiration" (EXP) date is not federally required, but may be State required, as defined by the egg laws in the State where the eggs are marketed. Some State egg laws do not allow the use of a "sell-by" date.

Many eggs reach stores only a few days after the hen lays them. Egg cartons with the USDA grade shield on them must display the "pack date" (the day that the eggs were washed, graded, and placed in the carton). The number is a three-digit code that represents the consecutive day of the year (the "Julian Date") starting with January 1 as 001 and ending with December 31 as 365. When a "sell-by" date appears on a carton bearing the USDA grade shield, the code date may not exceed 45 days from the date of pack.

Always purchase eggs before the "Sell-By" or "EXP" date on the carton. After the eggs reach home, refrigerate the eggs in their original carton and place them in the coldest part of the refrigerator, not in the door. For best quality, use eggs within 3 to 5 weeks of the date you purchase them. The "sell-by" date will usually expire during that length of time, but the eggs are perfectly safe to use.

UPC or Bar Codes

Universal Product Codes appear on packages as black lines of varying widths above a series of numbers. They are not required by regulation but manufacturers print them on most product labels because scanners at supermarkets can "read" them quickly to record the price at checkout.

Bar codes are used by stores and manufacturers for inventory purposes and marketing information. When read by a computer, they can reveal such specific information as the manufacturer's name, product name, size of product and price. The numbers are not used to identify recalled products.

Storage Times

Since product dates aren't a guide for safe use of a product, how long can the consumer store the food and still use it at top quality? Follow these tips: Purchase the product before the date expires. If perishable, take the food home immediately after purchase and refrigerate it promptly. Freeze it if you can't use it within times recommended on chart. Once a perishable product is frozen, it doesn't matter if the date expires because foods kept frozen continuously are safe indefinitely. Follow handling recommendations on product. Consult the following storage chart.

Refrigerator Home Storage (at 40 °F or below) of Fresh or Uncooked 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 following chart.

Storage of Fresh or Uncooked Products
Product Storage Times After Purchase
Poultry1 or 2 days
Beef, Veal, Pork and Lamb3 to 5 days
Ground Meat and Ground Poultry1 or 2 days
Fresh Variety Meats (Liver, Tongue, Brain, Kidneys, Heart, Chitterlings)1 or 2 days
Cured Ham, Cook-Before-Eating5 to 7 days
Sausage from Pork, Beef or Turkey, Uncooked1 or 2 days
Eggs3 to 5 weeks


Refrigerator Home Storage (at 40 °F or below) of Processed Products Sealed at Plant

If product has a "use-by" date, follow that date. If product has a "sell-by" or no date, cook or freeze the product by the times on the following chart.

Storage of Processed Products Sealed at Plant
Processed ProductUnopened, After Purchase After Opening
Cooked Poultry3 to 4 days3 to 4 days
Cooked Sausage3 to 4 days3 to 4 days
Sausage, Hard/Dry, shelf-stable6 weeks/pantry 3 weeks
Corned Beef, uncooked, in pouch with pickling juices5 to 7 days 3 to 4 days
Vacuum-packed Dinners, Commercial Brand with USDA seal2 weeks 3 to 4 days
Bacon2 weeks7 days
Hot dogs2 weeks1 week
Luncheon meat2 weeks3 to 5 days
Ham, fully cooked7 daysslices, 3 days; whole, 7 days
Ham, canned, labeled "keep refrigerated"9 months 3 to 4 days
Ham, canned, shelf stable2 years/pantry 3 to 5 days
Canned Meat and Poultry, shelf stable2 to 5 years/pantry 3 to 4 days

Source: USDA


Last Editorial Review: 4/22/2009


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