Have you ever wondered how long foods will actually last, and what do all of those dates on food packages really mean? We all want the freshest foods possible and want them to last once we get them home. Knowing how to decipher dates on food packages can help make sure you get the freshest products and the most for your food dollars. Let’s get to the bottom of all of those dates: “sell by”, “use by”, “best by”, and more! Fresh, refrigerated products that are perishable, such as milk, meats, fish, and poultry, may have “sell by” dates. This is the date that the store must sell these products by or discard them. You should buy the product before the “sell by” date expires. It is best to use the foods close to this date. However, “sell by” dates do not mean that the food is no longer good and needs to be destroyed after this date. If the product was stored and handled properly, it should be in good condition after the “sell by” date on the package.
A “best if used by” date is the date recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date. These dates are provided by food manufacturers as a way for you to judge the quality and freshness of the product. Foods are at their best quality and freshness if eaten by this date. This is not necessarily a food safety date. Keep in mind that if the product has not been stored or handled properly, the food may become unsafe before the “best if used by” date.
Some foods that are shelf-stable, such as cans and boxes of food, may have a code rather than a calendar date. This code is referred to as “closed dating”. These codes are not meant for the consumer to interpret as “use-by” dates. High-acid canned foods, such as tomatoes, will maintain best quality for 12 to 18 months. Low-acid canned foods, like green beans, will last for two to five years. Some cans may have a calendar date. If so, these dates are “best if used by” dates for best quality.
For the freshest products, buy the “youngest” ones available by comparing the dates on the packages. Keep perishable foods refrigerated, and follow the “Two Hour Rule”: never leave perishable foods at room temperature for longer than two hours. “When in doubt, throw it out” is also a good slogan to heed. If the food has an off odor, flavor, or appearance or has not been handled or stored properly, toss it. If a product has a “use-by” date, follow that date. For more information on determining how long foods will remain safe, check out the USDA FoodKeeper App at www.foodsafety.gov.
The LSU AgCenter and the LSU College of Agriculture