Dates on Food Packages: What Do They Mean?

by Jackie Hunter
Extension Faculty, Youth and Adult
Expanded Food & Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP)

Date labels are common on many types of food packages. But what do they mean? Is it safe for you to use after the package date? Use the information below to help you decide which outdated foods to

consume and which to discard. Dates on packages indicate freshness. Paying attention to dates can ensure that the food will be fresh for as long as possible. There are several types of dates which appear on packages, here are some definitions:

Packed on
(also “pack date”) the date of manufacturing, processing or final packing.
This is the date the product was packaged. Pack date is generally not intended for consumers but rather is used by manufacturers and retailers to track inventory, rotate items and locate items in case of recall.

Foods with this date: canned fruits and vegetables, canned meat and fish, boxes of crackers and cookies, spices

Sell by
(also “pull date”) last date the food should be sold. If properly stored, the food is good for several days at home after the “sell by” date.
Stores must remove these products by the date listed. The food will be safe to eat after this date if it has been refrigerated continually. Milk will usually be edible at least one week longer. Other foods like yogurt or eggs will keep more than one week beyond the date listed.

Foods that use this date: milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, cream, eggs, lunchmeats, packaged salad mixes.

Used by:
(also “best quality date”) after this date, the quality of the product starts to go down, but the product is still safe to eat.
These foods have a long shelf life, but eventually they will begin to lose their flavor or develop off-flavors. The date listed is an estimate of how long the food will be of optimal quality. Quality is defined as smell, taste, and texture, not as safety. Therefore, after the date listed, the food may not taste as good, but it will still be safe. If the product smells or tastes bad, or if the seal on the package has been broken, it is best if you don’t use it

Foods that use this date: Cereals, packaged mixes like macaroni and cheese, boxed soups, bakery products, cheese

Exp. Date
(sometimes spelled out as “expiration date”) the last date the product should be used before loss of quality, but it is still safe to eat.
Although these products may be safe if consumed after this date, their usefulness and quality may be reduced. Infant formula, baby food, and over-the-counter drugs should never be consumed after the expiration date because they may not function in the body as they are supposed to. Rising agents like yeast will be safe after this date, but may not be as effective.

Products that use this date: infant formula, baby food, vitamins, over-the counter drugs, refrigerated rolls, yeast, baking powder, and cake mixes.

Jackie Hunter
Extension Faculty, Youth, Adult, and 4H
Expanded Food & Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP)


Posted: November 13, 2017

Category: Food Safety, Health & Nutrition, Work & Life

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