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Food Expiration & Code Dating

I have recently created a date coding example page. You may want to read this page first for background.

There is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States. Although dating of some foods is required by more than 20 states, there are areas of the country where much of the food supply has some type of open date and other areas where almost no food is dated.

Food expiration date coding is a nightmare for the consumer to interpret. There is no standard. Each vendor decides how they want to do it. The FDA only has guidelines on labeling a product and the required information. This is different from an expiration date on all food products that the consumer can understand.

Food products can be divided into two main categories - refrigerated and canned. Most bakery and pharmacy related food items are "sell by" or "best by" dated, which is easy for you and I to understand. Some refrigerated and canned manufactures use this form of dating. But the only guideline a grocer has to follow in selling is the FDA's "Federal Food Code", which mainly says the food must be uncontaminated with no signs of spoilage when sold.

First lets explain some background. Shelf life of food product varies greatly according to how they're processed and stored.

Canned food has a shelf life of at least two years from the date of processing. Canned food retains its safety and nutritional value well beyond two years, but it may have some variation in quality, such as a change of color and texture.

Canning is a high-heat process that renders the food commercially sterile. Food safety is not an issue in products kept on the shelf or in the pantry for long periods of time. In fact, canned food has an almost indefinite shelf life at moderate temperatures (75° F and below).

Above is from the Canned Food Alliance. They also have another page entitled "How to Read Canned Food Dating ". My reply as a consumer is - "why should I have to call the company". A "best buy" date should be on the can.

Each canned food manufacturer has a unique coding system. Some manufacturers list day, month and year of production, while other companies reference only the year. These codes are usually imprinted on the top or bottom of the can. Other numbers may appear and reference the specific plant manufacturing or product information and are not useful to consumers. Below is a sampling of how some manufacturers code their products so consumers know when the product was packaged. If you have specific questions about a company's product, contact a customer service representative at the phone number listed.

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The Food Marketing Institute gives this information for consumers:

Product dating is not required by Federal regulations although dating of some foods is required by 15 states. Calendar dates are found primarily on perishable foods such as dairy products, eggs, meat and poultry. Coded dates might appear on shelf-stable products such as cans and boxes of food.

There are several types of dates

  • "Sell-by" date - tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.
  • "Best if Used By (or Before)" - recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • "Use-By" - the last date recommended for the use of product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.
  • "Closed or Coded Dates" - packing numbers for use by the manufacturer in tracking their products. This enables manufacturers to rotate their stock as well as locate their products in the event of a recall.

Expired Dates

As long as a product is wholesome, a retailer may legally sell fresh or processed meat and poultry products beyond the expiration date on the package.

Here is the FDA guidelines for expiration dates concerning manufacturers. A more comprehensive view is found here.

What guidance does the FDA have for Expiration Dates?

Selling food past the expiration date in some cases is not a violation of FDA's regulations or law. To explain, FDA's regulations pertain, among other things, to food safety. The quality characteristics of foods (taste, aroma and appearance--as distinct from safety characteristics) often depend in great part on good storage conditions: temperature and humidity control in the retail store and warehouse. When storage conditions have been optimal, many foods are acceptable in terms of taste and other quality characteristics for periods of time beyond the expiration date printed on the label, and also are safe to eat. Taste and other quality characteristics deteriorate more rapidly if the food is stored at elevated temperatures and high humidity conditions (such as would occur if the air conditioning failed in a retail store, warehouse, or in the consumer's home. Conversely, deterioration occurs very slowly if foods are stored under optimal conditions (correct storage temperatures and low humidity). Because the expiration date is not indicative of product quality if storage conditions have been less than optimal, FDA does not require expiration dates on most products. An exception to this answer is that expiration dates are required on drugs. The dates required on infant formula products are "use by" dates, not "expiration" dates. A consumer using the infant formula product before this date is assured that the product meets nutritional and quality standards.

I disagree with the above red sentence. That sounds like manufacturer and vendor influence in a government department. What can we, the consumer, do about it? Email, write or telephone influential groups or people. The purchase of food should not fall under the "buyer beware" category.

From what I understand, this group makes recommendations to the FDA. They meet in even years and revisions to the "Federal Food Code" made in odd years. Here is the contact for the group chairman.

Contact your congressrep (click thru to web page of individual for email addy) or senator. I could not find a consumer site that was not manufacturer related. I don't care for Ralph Nader. You may want to view and sign this online petition. It deals with a Dateline story about the re-dating of meat products in supermarkets.

If there is any erroneous information on this page, contact me and I will make a revision.

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