What do the dates mean on food packages? Do they mean the product will be unsafe to eat after that date?

Answer From Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D.

Dates on food packages are intended to ensure quality — not safety. They aren't required by law. (Some exceptions exist, such as infant formula.)

So what do they mean?

  • Sell by. This date tells the grocer how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date is past.
  • Best if used by (or before). This date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • Use by. This date indicates quality; there may be a decline in quality after this date. This date is set by the manufacturer.
  • Closed or coded dates. These are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer. These may be used in food recalls.

Rather than relying on these dates, make it a habit to use or freeze perishable food within a few days of purchase. Freezing ensures safety indefinitely. However, quality will decline over time.

Dec. 17, 2019 See more Expert Answers