How to Read Expiration Dates

Savvy consumers know that in addition to basic food label information like calories and nutritional content, they also should check the numbers and dates stamped on the bottom of canned goods, prepackaged foods and fresh produce. Once you crack the code, you'll understand how to read expiration dates.

Two types of codes

According to Consumer Affairs, "Most U.S. food companies stamp lot codes and/or expiration dates on their products."

  • Expiration dates: This date is a consumer guideline and uses numbers printed in a date format. This code gives you the date when a product is deemed unsafe to eat, or if not unsafe, then the contents might not be fresh enough to taste as good as before the expiration date.
  • Lot codes: Products are manufactured in batches. Should a product recall become necessary because of a health issue, the only way to keep track of a problematic batch is for the manufacturer to assign a series of numbers they call lot codes.

Expiration dates

The government does very little to regulate manufacturer expiration dates. Because one size does not fit all when it comes to expiration dates and lot codes, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) suggests that consumers look for these three other dates:

  • Best if used by/Best before: This date does not refer to safety but is a guide for quality and flavor. As an example, milk turns sour over time. Even though it tastes terrible, it's still safe to consume after the peak of freshness.
  • Sell by: This date helps stores determine how long a product should be displayed and available for sale before quality is affected. While contents might be safe to eat after the "sell by" date, the quality of the product probably won't be the same.
  • Use by: This date is similar to expiration dates used on medicines and is the closest food consumers get to a true expiration date. It's not recommended to use any product after this date, because foods lose nutrients and are at risk to develop dangerous bacteria that might be harmful if consumed.

Crack the date code

On every canned or boxed product there is a four-digit code stamped on the bottom. Months are given as numbers or letters. January through September is shown as the numbers 1 through 9 with O, N and D indicating October, November and December. Other date codes might use all letters for months where A is January, B is February, C is March and so on.

Remember, the expiration date is the last date any food should be eaten. Always check that date before making a purchase, and inspect any packaging for tears, dents or broken seals that might possibly damage the quality of the contents.

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