Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Tips for understanding a food label

What does a food label "sell by" date really mean? And how long is it good after that date?

Why doesn't the butter have an expiration label? And do I really have to use by the "use by" date? 

Food label expiration dates aren't exactly self-explanatory at times. 

Here's how to understand the stamped-on freshness dates on various food labels, and what it means when it comes to buying and using food before it expires.

what the "best if used by" (or before) and "use by" dates mean for safety.

The date you see on a "best if used by" (or before) and a "use by" stamp on a food label is the last day the baker or farmer who created/baked/squeezed the product is willing to guarantee its freshness on.

You can also look at it as the day the item begins to go bad. Most foods are still edible after this date, if they're stored properly. But once the date passes, there are no guarantees.

You'll find calendar dates on perishables such as dairy products, eggs, meat and chicken. Choose the freshest you can find (the date furthest in the future) digging your way to the very back of the display. It's worth searching for.

what the "sell by" or "pull" dates tell you about food freshness.

After this date, the grocer is advised by the manufacturer to remove the item from the shelf. The item may still be eaten if it hasn't been around longer than the recommended storage time.

expiration dates are as firm as a food label gets.

Don't push it with this one. When this date has come and gone, so should the edibles inside.  This is one you can take to the bank. It's as firm as food dating gets.

Choose the item with the date furthest in the future so it will last longer in your fridge. The only exception to this food label rule: eggs. The expiration date on eggs is the last day a store can sell them as fresh. Buy eggs before the expiration date, and use within one month.

what "closed", "coded", or "pack dates" mean.

This tells you when shelf-stable items such as cereal or canned tuna was packed or boxed. And no, they are not easy to read, by design.

These dates are really more of a manufacturer's code to help them (not you) to rotate their products or tract them in the event of a recall. (There's a scary thought.)

Some of these dates are coded by month (M), day (D), and year (Y); others use an encrypted type code. If you can read the date, choose the product made most recently.

Unsure? Plan to keep canned goods in the pantry no longer than one year. The same rule applies to cake mixes, too.

Some mixes contain oils that may become rancid over time. The exception to this rule: Canned olives and packaged pickles and peppers should be used within three months.

Visit the Clean Organized Home Store for food storage supplies and products designed to keep food safe in the refrigerator, freezer, and on your shelves.

More in Kitchens

Related Stories

› How to Read a Food Label


Have your say about what you just read! Leave a comment in the box below.

About the Author

Tara Aronson

Tara Aronson is a native Californian. Having grown up in San Diego, she studied journalism and Spanish to pursue a career in newspaper writing. Tara, whose three children - Chris, Lyndsay, and Payne - are the light of her life, now lives and writes in Los Angeles. She also regularly appears on television news programs throughout the U.S.