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January 21, 2019

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What to make of expiration dates

The date on the milk jug passed two days ago.

You sniff the milk. It smells fine. But is it safe?

Making sense of dates on food products can be challenging to say the least. There is no uniform system used for food dating in the United States. Some package dates refer to quality, not safety. Others are solely for the use of sellers, to keep food on their displays rotating.

For consumers, knowing what food dates mean, and how — or if — they should be followed, can prevent wasted food, save money and likely keep belly aches at bay.

What the date means

A calendar date stamped on a food product can have multiple meanings. To help consumers make sense of the date, manufacturers typically include a phrase to explain its meaning.

• A “sell-by” date tells stores how long to display a product for sale. You should buy the product before the date listed but can use the item after the date passes.

• A “best if used by (or before)” date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a safety date. After the date passes, the color or flavor of the food may be affected, but the product generally is safe to consume.

• A “use-by” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product. The date has been determined by the manufacturer. A use-by date can also appear as an “EXP,” for “expiration.”

*NOTE: With the exception of infant formula, the Food and Drug Administration does not require food producers to date food products. “Use-by,” “sell-by” and expiration dates are listed only at the discretion of the manufacturer. The FDA also has no prohibition against stores selling food that is past the expiration date indicated on the label, although stores are obligated to make sure foods are safe for consumers.

How long is it good?

When kept in proper conditions — in the refrigerator for perishables, and in a cool, dry place for dry goods — many foods can be eaten well past the date listed on their packages.

Times listed are from “use by” or expiration date on package, unless otherwise noted.

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