Is it Fresh? Phil’s Guide to Sell-By Dates

August 12, 2010

The jumble of so-called freshness codes, sell-by dates, use-by, expiration and packed-on dates can be confusing.

The jumble of so-called freshness codes, sell-by dates, use-by, expiration and packed-on dates can be confusing. It may surprise you to learn that dating is not required with the exception of infant formula and baby foods which must be withdrawn by their expiration date. For all other foods, except dairy products in some states, freshness dating is strictly voluntary on the part of manufacturers. That’s the bad news. The good news is that because shoppers are increasingly concerned with this issue, manufacturers seem to be making it easier to decipher their freshness codes.

“Freshness coding” that we can read (in English) on packages is a relatively recent phenomenon. Although there are no standards, the codes must be readable and easy to understand. When a milk carton has a date under the words “sell by,” for example, it means exactly that: The milk or cheese or whatever should be sold by this date (and shouldn’t be bought after it). That doesn’t mean the product is spoiled; it’s just past its prime. How much time you should allow before consuming - or discarding - the product depends on what it is and how it’s packaged. If you’re in doubt, call the toll-free consumer hotline number listed on most packages.

Milk distributors have led the way in establishing both the perceived image and importance of freshness. Searching for the most up-to-minute date is important. All states require “sell-by” dates on milk, but there is no consistent requirement of how many days before the product spoils.

The factor that most affects shelf life (of all products, not just milk) is of course temperature. Milk should be stored, both in the grocery store and at home, between 40 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Dairies often “short date” milk by seven to 10 days to ensure that they meet state regulations and that we drink the milk at its peak. That means the actual “drink-by” date can be about a week later than the date stamped on the container. You should, however, trust your instincts and - most important - your nose.

What about other products? 
Soft drink and beer manufacturers began advertising and branding freshness several years ago. It’s a good strategy. Every beer drinker has encountered at least one “skunky” brew, and every soda fan has faced a flat or foul-tasting bottle of pop.

Let’s look at why we need to take note of the expiration date on a Diet Pepsi. When stored correctly (refrigerated or at room temperature), it will stay at its peak for only about 100 days. This is because its primary artificial sweetener, Nutrasweet, loses its effectiveness over time. If you store Diet Pepsi in a warm area, it will lose sweetness faster.

Temperature is Key 
Just as for milk, temperature remains one of the most critical ways to maintain freshness. We can control storage at home, but what about before food gets to us? That, of course, is outside our control. We have to trust that manufacturers and retailers - and government agencies - will ensure that product temperatures in shipping and storage are at the proper levels. But there are things you can do. If you see ice cream that’s soft in the freezer case or milk that’s not cold, don’t buy it. It may already be spoiled, and it probably won’t last as long. The same rule applies to all fresh products.

So, be a “milk maid” if you must - a tidy one, please - and be proud of it! It is our right as consumers to make sure our foods are fresh when we buy them; and it’s the store’s responsibility to ensure that their stock is properly rotated. If for whatever reason you missed the expiration date on a product and realized it was past its peak when you got home and started unpacking your groceries, keep the receipt and bring the product back to the store for a replacement. Food safety is a critical and important issue for you and your family’s well-being.