tips for deciphering A food label

When it comes to food freshness, it's a confusing world out there in grocery land.

What does the "sell by" food label really mean? How long is it good after the "sell by" date? Why doesn't the butter have one? And do I really have to use by the "use by" date?

There ought to be a law. But there isn't - at least not on all products in all states. In fact, U.S. federal law requires expiration dates only on infant formulas. They are voluntary for the rest of the food chain.

Worse, your grocer isn't required to take dated stuff off the shelves. Ick. Because all food labels are not created equal, how can you tell what's good and what's allowed bacteria a toehold? Here's a look at sell-date wording on a food label, and what it means to help unravel the mystery.

Best If Used By (or Before) and Use By Labeling

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 foods 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.

Sell or Pull By Food Label Dates

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

Don't push it with this one. When this date has come and gone, so should the food inside the dated label. This is one you can take to the (food) 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. 

Exception to this food label 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.

Closed, Coded, or Pack Dates

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.

For more tips, visit the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.

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