Decoding the dates on food labels

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FORT MYERS, Fla. – Best by, use by, better enjoyed by are all phrases you may see on the outside of your food followed by a date. So what do these dates mean and can you safely consume the food after the date has passed? We work to decode the truth to those dates.

Busy businesswoman, wife and mom of two young girls, Sara Ryan knows how to get the job done in the kitchen. But when it comes to deciphering the labeled dates on her food, she says, it is a mixed bag.

For example for things like fresh produce she told us, “I don’t even look at the date, but I do look at the lettuce. And you can tell if it gets yucky or mushy– I just toss it.”

But when it comes to perishable items like her meats and dairy products, those labels mean a lot more.

“I try to use it the next day [after purchasing] if possible and if I’m not, then I throw it in the freezer until I need it,” she explained.

We met up with two experts at Lee Memorial Health System to ask about the importance of those labels. They brought out a mixture of items and we saw a mixture of phrases stamped before the dates.

Use/Freeze by
Sell by
Used by
Best before

And some products like the yogurts did not have any of those phrases, but just had a date stamped on their packaging.

Right now, the federal government does not require foods to have a standard date label or label at all, so each state has its own guidelines.

“Hopefully in the future we will have some standardization of these dates so we can really understand if they are use by, best by, freeze by, who knows what they are,” said Heather Wayco, Director of the Clinical Nutrition Department at Lee Memorial Health System.

Our experts say a lot those dates on the non-perishable items suggests when the product will lose its quality, but it does not mean the food is unsafe.

“Something like a canned good or a pasta, those types of things, do have extended dates on them or best by dates or use by dates. That manufacturer gives us those dates because it guarantees their freshness or their nutrient value up until that date,” explained Wayco. “Now you could eat it after that date because it has little chance to go bad, but the nutrient value may be diminished as well as the quality of the food product and the taste and the texture and those kinds of things.”

But it is a different story when it comes to the perishable foods like meats and dairy products. For those products, you want to pay attention to the dates and make sure to use it by that date, or soon after buying.

“If you don’t use [meat products] within one to two days of buying in a store, certainly freeze it,” said Tony Harn, the Food Safety and Quality Assurance Manager for Lee Memorial Health System.

Freezing your meats will mean a much longer shelf life.

“From a food safety standpoint, those [harmful] organisms will no longer grow and reproduce [once it is frozen]. So from a food safety standpoint, while frozen, it’s good forever as long as it’s kept frozen,” said Harn.

To see what the USDA recommends on food safety and whether or not your products are still safe to eat, our experts recommend you check out the USDA’s guidelines and check out their FoodKeeper app for your phone.

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