Dates on food labels: What do they really mean?

I looked through my cupboard and refrigerator this morning. The jar of Dole pineapple chunks states "Enjoy by Apr 09 2013." The box of Life cereal has a blue label "Best Before Nov 24 13." The gallon of fat-free milk has stamped "sell by Jan 25 2013."A package of Cabot 50 percent reduced fat cheddar cheese slices states "Sell by 4/7/13."

What do these dates really mean?

According to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, dates stamped on food products help stores decide how long to display the food for sale, and also help you and I know when to use the product to ensure the highest quality. The sell-by or use-by date is not, however, a safety date. The food should still be safe past that date as long as it's handled properly.

If foods are mishandled, however, bacteria can grow and cause foodborne illness before or after the date on the package. For example, defrosting foods at room temperature for more than two hours, cutting up chicken and then using the same cutting board to slice an apple (known as cross-contamination), or leaving cold foods such as lunch meat or potato salad out of the refrigerator for several hours can promote bacteria growth and cause potentially serious foodborne illness.

I talked with Joe from the Cabot Creamery consumer phone line, who told me that Cabot guarantees the freshness of their products through the sell-by date. There is no expiration date, and he recommended that I keep cheese refrigerated at all times for safety and best quality.

Even milk can be used for 5-7 days after the sell-by date as long as your refrigerator temperature is 38-40° F and the milk container is kept sealed. Of course, if you forget to put the milk back in the fridge after pouring a glass for a bedtime snack, and wake up in the morning to find the milk container sitting on the counter - throw out the milk to prevent foodborne illness.

The next time you go grocery shopping, notice the dates on the packages:

Sell-by Date - Tells the store how long to display the product for sale. My milk and cheese display sell-by dates.

Use-by Date - This is the last date the product will maintain its optimum freshness, flavor and texture. It can be safely used until the expiration date, but the flavor may not be at its best. My pineapple and cereal display these dates.

Expiration Date - If you haven't used the product by this date, it's time to toss it.

Lynn Grieger, RD, CDE, cPT is a health, food and fitness coach in Manchester and online at The gallon of milk will definitely be used up by Jan. 25.


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