What does a food label's "sell by" date really mean?
How long is it good after that date? Why doesn't the butter have one?
And do I really have to use by the "use by" date?
As parents, we have to decipher the hidden meaning of the various labels we encounter on our grocer's aisle.
But it isn't exactly self-explanatory at times.
Worse, the grocer whose shelves we buy from isn't even required to help us by taking dated stuff off the shelves.
Because all labeling isn't created equal, how can you tell what's good to go (home) and what might have sat too long (stays)?
Here's a simple guide to what the label wording really means:
The date you
see 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 items are still edible after this date if they're stored properly but no guarantees here, Mom.
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.
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.
Don't push it. When this date has come and gone, so should the edibles inside the label. This is one you can take to the bank. It's as firm as food dating gets.
When shopping, choose the item with the date furthest in the future so it will last longer in your fridge.
Exception to the rule: eggs. Their expiration date is the last day a store can sell them as fresh. Buy eggs before the expiration date, and use within one month.
This tells you when
shelf-stable stuff 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 track 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 typed 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 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.
About the Author
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.