Understanding Date Labels on Packaged Foods

Understanding Date Labels on Packaged Foods

Our 2019 Consumer Behaviors & Perceptions of Food Waste research found that a top reason consumers throw away food is because it’s become spoiled or stale. This finding lends itself to two follow-up questions: How do we know if a food has become spoiled or stale? And can the date labels on packaged foods help us decide?

While an important part of safe food handling includes proper food storage to avoid spoilage, sometimes foods are thrown away because of the dates on the labels, not because they are truly spoiled. In fact, for several years, our annual Food and Health Survey has shown that the top food safety concern for consumers is foodborne illness caused by bacteria.

Many consumers don’t understand the date labels on packaged foods, so let’s see if we can clear up some of that confusion. Here are some fast facts about packaged food date labels and how to tell if your food is really spoiled.

Tips for understanding date labels

Quality, Not Safety

Date labels, also called “open dating” labels, are based on quality, not safety (except for infant formula products).

  • A “Best if Used By/Before” date 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.
  • A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula (see below).
  • A “Freeze-By” date indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

The Exception to the Rule: Infant Formula

There is one exception to these guidelines: Date labels on infant formula products are regulated by the federal government. Infant food products are required to bear a “Use-By” date, up to which the manufacturer has confirmed that the product contains no less than a minimum amount of each nutrient identified on the product label and that the product will be of an acceptable quality.

Voluntary Labels

Manufacturers may add date labels voluntarily, and these labels should be considered an estimate. Food manufacturers add these date labels to inform consumers of the date up to which the food will be at its peak quality and flavor. However, these dates are not an exact science, and consumers should know of potential inconsistencies when evaluating whether to eat or throw away a particular food.

Use Discretion

Use your discretion when deciding whether or not to throw away a food. It should be safe to consume a food beyond its date label if it has been properly stored. However, consumers should regularly evaluate their pantry and refrigerator, monitor any changes in texture and smell, and use their best judgement.

How do you know if food is spoiled?

As noted above, storing food properly is the first step to keeping it as fresh and safe as possible for as long as possible. This Refrigerator & Freezer Storage Chart, provided by the Food and Drug Administration, includes safe storage times for many widely used foods. However, the FDA advises that all food should be examined for spoilage regardless of the dates stamped on the packaging. Here are a few clear signs of spoilage that consumers can look for as they evaluate their food:

  • Food that is abnormally soft, discolored or has an uncharacteristically unpleasant odor is likely spoiled and should be discarded.
  • Food that has molded or has developed a “slimy” film on it should not be eaten. Even if you remove the mold or slime, lingering microbes can still pose a foodborne illness threat.
  • In the case of canned goods, swollen cans often indicate a spoiled product. However, spoilage is not the only cause of abnormal cans. Thus, the above-mentioned tips should be used to further investigate spoilage potential.
  • If your spoilage sleuthing skills are still not helping you and you have questions or concerns about the quality, safety and/or labeling of your food, you should contact the company that produced the product. Most packaged foods provide the company’s contact information on the package. Also, the United States Department of Agriculture’s “Ask USDA” feature is a great resource to gain more insights on handling and storing food safely, as well as preventing foodborne illness.
  • Lastly, if you’re in doubt, throw the food away. It is better to be overly cautious than to eat potentially unsafe food.

Many of us want to be efficient and safe when it comes to our food choices. We hope these tips can clear up some of the confusion around food date labels and help you reduce unnecessary food waste. 

This article was written by Alyssa Pike, RD and Tamika Sims, PhD.