“I won’t buy that can of chili; it’s past its date!” How many times have you heard or maybe even made a similar statement? You may have also heard something similar to: “I won’t buy that lot of EVO; it doesn’t have much time left on its expiration date.” You can’t fault someone for erring on the side of caution, but if cautious consumers don’t fully understand date marking, they may miss out on a perfectly safe, great deal or possibly contribute to waste.
Contrary to popular belief, most foods do NOT require a date mark! According to the Food Code, a food requires date marking only if it is subject to all three of the following factors:
1. Potentially Hazardous Food (old lingo) / Time and Temperature Controlled for Safety Food (current lingo). Food requires time and temperature controls to limit the pathogen growth or toxin formation
2. Ready-to-eat Food (RTE). Food can be eaten without any additional preparation steps to make it safe.
3. Food that can be stored under refrigeration for more than 24 hours to extend shelf life.
Why is date marking required only for these foods? Because date marking is a means of protecting consumers from a specific pathogen: Listeria monocytogenes. Listeria is a bacteria that continues to grow even at refrigerated temperatures. Since Listeria will grow at below 41°F, the main measure to keep it under control is time, not temperature. So, date marking notifies consumers when a food susceptible to Listeria should be discarded in order to avoid illness or injury. In the case of this specific category of food, the date can be no more than six calendar days from the date it was prepared for sale. EX: If produced on Dec 15, the date mark can be no later than Dec 21.
Food manufacturers may elect to include a date mark on their product to advise their consumers of the food’s peak quality period. If a manufacturer chooses to provide a date, it must express both the month and day of the month (and the year, in the case of shelf-stable or frozen products). Additionally, immediately next to the date, the manufacturer must include a phrase explaining the meaning of the date such as “sell by” or “use before.” It's all up to the manufacturer.
Believe it or not, there is no uniform or universally accepted system used for date marking food in the United States. However, there are several date marking practices that are commonly followed by the food industry.
• A “Sell-by” date tells a retail establishment how long to display a product for sale. The manufacturer wants consumers to buy the product before the expiration date, and requires the retailer to remove the product after the expiration date passes.
• A “Best if used by (or before)” date is the manufacturer’s recommend period for best flavor or quality.
• A “Use-by” date is the last date the manufacturer recommends a consumer use the product for peak quality.
• “Closed or coded dates” are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer for tracking and inventory purposes.
REMEMBER: The general rule is that there is no rule for marking food with expiration dates for safety purposes. Except for one significant exception, the dates printed on labels, packaging or documents is an expression of quality limitation, not safety. Do not sell a food short (yes…it was intended) just because the manufacturer’s subjectively established period of peak quality is about to expire.
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