STILLWATER, Okla. – In addition to nutritional information and ingredients, food labels and packages also have different dates stamped on them.

In an effort to use foods at their peak, reduce the risks of eating potentially spoiled foods and limit the amount of food thrown away, it is important for consumers to know the difference between “sell-by,” “best if used by” and “use-by” dates on perishables such as meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products, said Barbara Brown, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension food specialist.

“A ‘sell-by’ date lets the store know how long to display the product for sale,” Brown said. “Consumers should purchase these products before the date expires. A ‘best if used by’ date is simply a recommendation for best flavor or quality. The manufacturer determines this date. A ‘use-by’ date is the last day recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. Again, this date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.”

Except for use-by dates, product dates do not refer to home storage and use after purchase. These dates usually refer to the best quality. They are not food safety dates.

Brown said that even if the date expires during home storage, the product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality as long as it has been handled properly. Refrigerated foods should be kept at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below. If a product has a use-by date, follow that date. If it has a sell-by date or no date, cook or freeze the fresh or uncooked product using these guidelines: poultry, within one or two days; beef, veal, pork and lamb, three to five days; ground meat and poultry, one or two days; cooked, cured ham, five to seven days; sausage from pork, beef or turkey, one or two days; and eggs, three to five weeks.

Federal law does not require a sell-by or expiration date, but may be required by the state. Egg cartons with the USDA grade shield on them must display the “pack date.” The number is a three-digit code that represents the consecutive day of the year starting with January as 001 and ending with December 31 as 365.

“When the egg carton contains a sell-by date bearing the USDA grade shield, the code date may not exceed 45 days from the date of packing,” Brown said. “Always purchase eggs before the sell-by or expiration date. Proper storage also is important. Refrigerate the eggs in their original carton and place them in the coldest part of the refrigerator, not the door. For best quality, use them within three to five weeks of the date you purchased them. The sell-by date will usually expire during this time, but as long as the eggs have been properly handled and stored, they are perfectly safe to use.”

Canned foods must exhibit a packing code to enable tracking of the product in interstate commerce. This not only helps manufacturers to remember to rotate their stock, it also helps locate their products in the event of a recall.

Most canned goods exhibit calendar dates, which usually are considered best-if-used-by dates to help ensure peak quality. Generally, high-acid foods such as tomatoes and pineapple will retain best quality on the shelf for 12-18 months, while low-acid foods will retain best quality on the shelf for two to five years.

“Food safety is an important aspect for consumers to keep in mind, for both fresh and canned foods,” Brown said. “Proper handling and storage makes all the difference.


Oklahoma State University, U.S. Department of Agriculture, State and Local Governments Cooperating: The Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service offers its programs to all eligible persons regardless of race, color, national origin, religion, gender, age, disability, or status as a veteran, and is an equal opportunity employer.

Trisha Gedon
Communications Specialist
Agricultural Communications Services
136 Agriculture North
Oklahoma State University
Stillwater, OK  74078
405-744-3625 (phone)
405-744-5739 (fax
[email protected]

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