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Dates and Code Descriptions

What they are and how to use themfood

There are two general types of food dating: open and closed

  • Open dating is intended for the general public. It’s found primarily on perishable foods such as meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products.
  • Closed (or "coded") dating is intended for manufacturers’ use—generally on shelf-stable products such as cans and boxes of food. These appear in the form of packing numbers.

There are different kinds of open dates. Here’s a look at what they are…and what they mean:

  • A "sell-by" date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.
  • A "Best if used by (or before)" date is a recommendation to help you get the best quality or flavor. It is not meant as a purchase or safety date.
  • A "Use-by" date is the last date recommended for the use of the product at peak quality. The product’s manufacturer determines this date.

Food safety (before and after the printed date)

As you can see, product dates aren’t always printed for safety considerations. Even “use-by” dates usually refer to best food quality, not safety.

In fact, a perishable food item should be safe even if the date expires during home storage. But how can you feel confident?

Here are a few tips:

  • Perishable food should be stored at 40° F or below.
  • An “off” odor, flavor or appearance can be a result of spoilage bacteria. If a food has developed such characteristics, don’t use it—for reasons of quality.
  • When foods are mishandled, foodborne bacteria can grow—and cause foodborne illness. This can happen regardless of the date on the package.

Examples of mishandled products include those that have been left unrefrigerated; defrosted at room temperature for more than two hours; cross-contaminated; or handled without proper sanitary practices. Always follow the handling and preparation instructions on the label.

eggsDates on egg cartons

The safety and quality of eggs are often a particular concern. Here are some tips and information to guide you:

  • A sell-by or expiration (“EXP”) date is not federally required for eggs. But it may be state-required, as defined by the laws where the eggs are marketed. (Some state laws do not allow the use of a sell-by date on eggs.)
  • Egg cartons with the USDA grade shield must display the "pack date"—the day the eggs were washed, graded and placed in the carton. The number is a three-digit code that represents the day of the year, from 001 (January 1) to 365 (December 31). When a "sell-by" date appears on a carton bearing the USDA grade shield, the code date may not exceed 45 days from the pack date.
  • Always purchase eggs before the sell-by or EXP date on the carton.
  • Refrigerate the eggs in their original carton and place them in the coldest part of the refrigerator—not in the door.
  • Use the eggs within three to five weeks of the date you purchase them. The "sell-by" date will usually expire during that time, but properly refrigerated eggs will still be safe.

This information was obtained through the FSIS USDA site. For additional food safety information, go to: