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Demystifying Product Dates
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Demystifying Product Dates

March 28, 2012

Defining a Date

What's in a date? Well, that depends on what date you're talking about.

A first date? ... everything!!

A date you just picked off the tree? ... nothin but date!

A date on a food item? ... hummmm, that one's not as straightforward ...

It depends again on what date you're talking about ... a sell by date, a use by date, a best by date ... just to mention a few. The answer to questions about food dating (the dates manufacturers print on their food products, not being in love with your food) are far more complicated. As you can see, even the wording within a date category can be quite ambiguous.

The Dating Process

There is one fact that is consistent for all dates - they are not required! The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require food firms to place expired by, use by or best before dates on food products. This information is left entirely to the discretion of the manufacturer. Nor does the FDA preclude the sale of food that is past the expiration date indicated on the label. This decision is left up to the discretion of the retailer.

The FDA calls this open dating. They allow manufacturers to stamp their product with a date to help the seller determine how long to keep the product on display and to help the purchaser use the product when it is of the best quality. The date is in no way intended to be a food safety date. If a manufacturer chooses to use a date on their product, then the FDA does define what must be in the date: if a calendar date is used the month, day and year must be printed along with a phrase explaining the meaning of that date. This is the US FDA official regulation, but at the state level many (20+) states require dating on certain foods while other states have no dating requirements at all. FYI: the FDA also allows closed dating which is coded letters and numbers used on more shelf-stable products.

The Dating Reality

All foods (except infant formula) have a life beyond their date, whatever the wording chosen by the manufacturer to print. Package dates are confusing and suggestive. The best way to deal with these dates is to understand the actual date by which you should eat each food item, the eat by date. Once you learn how to tell if food is reaching it's expiration, you will know whether to eat it or not - regardless of any pre-printed dates. This information allows you to make informed decisions both at home and at the grocery.

Although it's not recommended to cheat on your human date (or your date fruit), you shouldn't stay true to any best by dates (with the exception of infant formula and elderly nutrition drinks). Having extra time is almost always an advantage, so take advantage with your groceries - get to know them and keep them with you as long as possible instead of throwing them away before they've expired. Stay informed and take control with all your dates!


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