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What’s the Deal with Expiration Dates?

QC-Whats the deal with expiration dates

If you are in the food industry, you are no stranger to expiration dates. But sometimes industry standards lose the details while gaining familiarity. Read this quick summary to refresh yourself on the facts of expiration dating.

What do Expiration Dates Mean?

These dates tell you how long the product is likely to remain in its highest quality when unopened and stored properly per label directions, i.e., keep refrigerated.

How do Manufacturers Determine Quality Dates?

Factors including the length of time and the temperature at which a food is held during distribution and offered for sale, the characteristics of the food, and the type of packaging will affect how long a product will be of optimum quality.  Many companies will establish dates after conducting studies into the quality of the product over defined periods of time that also take into account the typical time a consumer will have the product in their home before consuming fully. Manufacturers and retailers will consider these factors when determining the date for which the product will be of best quality.

Does Federal Law Require Dating?

FDA does not require food firms to place “expired by,” “use by” or “best before” dates on food products. This information is voluntary and entirely at the discretion of the manufacturer to help communicate when to consume food at peak freshness.

Infant formula, some baby food, and pharmaceuticals do have requirements for code dating as defined by FDA regulations.

Examples of Commonly Used Phrases:

A “Best if Used By/Before” indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date. For perishable foods such as refrigerated dairy products, some states may require those products be pulled from store shelves when they reach their sell-by code date.  These types of freshness code dates are typically related to the timeline at which the product will become “spoiled” from a quality perspective, i.e., milk turns sour.

A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality.

What Date-Labeling Phrases are Used?

There are no uniform or universally accepted descriptions used on food labels for code dating in the United States. As a result, there are a wide variety of phrases, letter and number combinations used on labels to describe quality dates.

Are Dates for Food Safety or Quality?

Manufacturers provide dating to help consumers and retailers decide when food is of best quality only.

What Types of Food are Dated?

You can find code dating on most food packaging including canned goods and other shelf-stable products as well as perishable meat, poultry, egg and dairy products.

Can Expiration Dates be Extended or Changed on Shelf-Stable Food Products?

Changing a code date on a product does not violate food labeling laws. Changes can be made to code dating for a variety of reasons since this information is entirely at the discretion of the manufacturer. Because product freshness impacts the consumer experience, it is in the best interest of the manufacturer to ensure code dates accurately reflect the shelf life of the product. Customers will not return to brands that do not deliver wholesome, good tasting, high-quality product.