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Understanding Package Dates: Decoding the Confusion

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Have you ever found yourself staring at the date on a package of food, wondering whether it’s still safe to eat? You’re not alone. Date labels on food packaging can be confusing, and it’s not always clear what they mean or how they should be interpreted. In this article, we’ll explore the different types of package dates, what they signify, and how to tell if your food is still safe to eat.

Types of Package Dates

There are two main types of package dates: “best by” or “use by” dates, and “sell by” or “expiration” dates.

Best by or Use by

“Best by” or “use by” dates are recommendations for when the product is at its best quality, but the food is still safe to eat after this date. These dates are typically found on products like canned goods, dry goods, and frozen foods. However, this doesn’t mean that the quality of the food will remain the same after the date listed. For example, canned goods may lose their texture, color, or flavor over time, but they are still safe to eat.

Sell by or Expiration

“Sell by” or “expiration” dates are used by manufacturers to indicate when the food should no longer be sold or consumed. These dates are typically found on perishable items like dairy, meat, and poultry. Once the date has passed, it’s recommended that the product not be consumed, as it may pose a health risk.

Interpreting Package Dates

It’s important to note that package dates are not regulated, which can lead to confusion for consumers. However, many states do have laws regarding date labeling. In general, “best by” or “use by” dates are not a safety issue, but rather a quality issue. The food may not taste as good or have the same texture as it did before the date, but it’s still safe to eat.

On the other hand, “sell by” or “expiration” dates should be taken seriously, as they indicate when the food is no longer safe to consume. However, it’s important to remember that these dates are not foolproof. The quality of the food can be impacted by factors like temperature control, packaging, and handling.

Things to keep in mind

  • Manufacturers have the option to include date labels on their products, but these should be treated as approximate dates. These labels are meant to inform consumers about the peak quality and flavor of the food, but they are not a precise indicator.
  • It is recommended that consumers exercise their best judgment when deciding whether to discard food. Food that has been stored properly may still be safe to eat beyond the date label. However, it is important for consumers to regularly assess the contents of their pantry and refrigerator, and to be aware of any changes in texture or odor.

Determining Food Safety

So, how do you know if your food is still safe to eat? In general, the best way to determine food safety is to use your senses. Here are some tips for assessing the safety of your food:

  • Check the packaging for signs of damage, like dents or bulges. If the packaging is compromised, the food may not be safe to eat.
  • Look for signs of spoilage, like mold, discoloration, or off smells. If any of these are present, it’s best to discard the food.
  • Use a food thermometer to check the temperature of perishable items like meat and poultry. These items should be stored at 40°F or below to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria.


Understanding package dates can be a bit confusing, but with a little knowledge and common sense, you can make informed decisions about the safety and quality of your food. Remember that “best by” or “use by” dates are not safety issues, but rather recommendations for when the food is at its best quality. “Sell by” or “expiration” dates, on the other hand, should be taken seriously, as they indicate when the food is no longer safe to consume. When in doubt, use your senses and follow safe food handling practices to ensure the safety of your food.

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