Understanding Dates on Food Labels

Reviewed by Sarah Klemm, RD, CD
expiration date

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Food packaging contains a wealth of information to help you decide which foods to choose to maintain a healthy lifestyle. While we often may focus on nutrition facts and ingredients, there’s another piece of information that helps us decide on which foods we choose: product dates.

There are two types of dating that usually are displayed on a food product: "Open Dating" and "Closed Dating."

  • "Open Dating" is a calendar date that helps stores determine how long to display a product. It also helps the purchaser decide when to purchase or use the product by for best quality. In addition to the open date, there must be a phrase such as "sell by" or "use by" to explain the meaning of the date. These are found primarily on perishable foods such as meat and dairy products.
  • "Closed Dating" is a series of production numbers used by the manufacturer to indicate when a product was made. They primarily appear on shelf stable products such as cans and boxes of food.

Except for infant formulas, product dates are not expiration dates. They indicate when a product should be used for best quality. The terms "sell by," "best by" and "use by," may give you a reference for how long a food might last but learning more about the difference between these terms can help reduce the amount of food waste in the home and improve your food safety knowledge.

  • Stores use "Sell By" dates to determine when to sell an item by. This is not a safety deadline but may indicate products that have been sitting on the shelf longer.
  • Even if a "Best By" date has passed on a food you have at home, it should be safe to consume if stored and handled properly. This is the recommended date for best flavor or quality.
  • When a product reaches its "Use By" date, it means it’s no longer at peak quality according to the manufacturer.

Food Safety Guidelines

Some foods may be safe to consume past their product date, while others may go bad before they’ve reached it. This is because foodborne pathogens can contaminate foods that aren't properly stored and handled.

Bacteria may leave noticeable signs of food spoilage such as mold or unusual tastes and odors. These foods should not be eaten. Other types of bacteria don’t always leave clear signs, which makes food safety important in reducing your risk of getting sick.

To properly store and handle foods, always wash your hands, separate raw meat and poultry from ready-to-eat items, cook food to proper temperatures and refrigerate edible items promptly. Check the shelf life of foods with the free app, Is My Food Safe?, to help track the items in your kitchen and reduce your risk of food poisoning.

And remember, if you aren't sure how old something is or if it is safe to eat: When in doubt, throw it out!

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