What do food product dates mean, anyway?

"The egg carton date shows the eggs expire today and we're in the middle of making cookies," a caller said. "Can we use the eggs, or will we get sick?" "You'll be fine as long as the eggs have been kept cold in your refrigerator since you bought ...


“The egg carton date shows the eggs expire today and we’re in the middle of making cookies,” a caller said. “Can we use the eggs, or will we get sick?”

“You’ll be fine as long as the eggs have been kept cold in your refrigerator since you bought them,” I told him. “In fact they’re usually fine to use three to five weeks beyond the date listed.”

I heard an audible sigh of relief. He said the eggs had been in the refrigerator. I could tell he didn’t want to drive to the grocery store to pick up a carton of eggs.

As many of the questions I’ve received during the last few years have shown, food package dates can be confusing. Are the product dates required? What do they mean?


According to federal regulations, product dating is not required on foods, except for infant formulas and foods.

For infant foods, long storage could affect the nutritional quality of the food. Infants are particularly vulnerable to foodborne illness, too, so following the use-by dates closely and storing the products as recommended on the package are important.

“Open dating” usually is found on perishable foods such as eggs, meat, poultry and dairy products. Open dating uses calendar dates, such as “use by July 1” or “sell by August 15.”

“Use by” dates indicate the last date the food will be at peak quality. “Use by” dates are determined by manufacturers, who conduct quality tests and determine storage dates to be sure consumers are satisfied with their products. Using the product past the “use by” date often is safe as long as the product is stored and handled safely.

“Best if used by” is another quality date.

“Sell by” dates also come from the manufacturers. These dates tell the store how long the product should be displayed for sale. Consumers should pick up the product before the “sell by” date for better quality.

Canned foods also are dated, but these dates usually are “closed” or “coded” dates. Consumers have no way to decipher these codes, which often appear as a series of letters or numbers indicating the date and time of manufacture. These dates become valuable to manufacturers in the event of a recall.

Some canned foods include “best if used by” dates, too, which help consumers use the products at peak quality. Marking canned and boxed goods with the date you purchased them and organizing your cupboard in a “first in, first out” order is a good idea.


Canned acidic foods such as tomatoes are best if used within 18 months of purchase. Canned low-acid foods such as meat or vegetables will keep two or more years on your shelf as long as the storage area is cool and dry.

Garden-Robinson is a professor and food and nutrition specialist for the NDSU Extension Service. She shares many healthy eating tips at .

Related Topics: HEALTH
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