Decoding Food-Label Expiration Dates


My mother, who lives 3,000 miles away, has this weird penchant for using me as a food-safety barometer.

“I made some chicken salad a week ago,” she’ll tell me over the phone. “Do you think I can eat it for lunch?”

“Not unless your life-insurance premium is paid up,” I’ll reply.

Food poisoning is on my official Top 10 List of Unpleasant Experiences, courtesy of a visit to a fish eatery at New York City’s South Street Seaport some years ago. I’m talking about the bona fide nastiness that exiles you to your hotel room for 3 straight days, as you cope with fever, fatigue, cramping and surreal gastrointestinal upheavals.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25% of us will contract one of 250 foodborne illnesses each year—a statistic that doesn’t include the headline-making, recall-related salmonella and E. coli outbreaks that seem to occur with increasing frequency. While we cannot control how food is prepared and stored when we dine out, we can take specific steps to prevent problems at home.

 “Despite the spate of recent food recalls, consumers aren’t completely helpless when it comes to feeding their families more safely,” confirms Lisa Lee Freeman, editor-in-chief of ShopSmart magazine.

In a recent issue, Freeman’s editorial team offered tips on decoding what food product dates really mean. This one’s for you, Mom:

  • “Sell” or “pull”date. Grocery stores use this date to determine how long food products should remain on shelves. Properly stored products should be safe to eat 3 to 7 days after the sell-by date.
  • “Best if used by”date. This date is set by the manufacturer. Use the product by this date for top quality and flavor.
  • Expiration date. Here’s the biggie. Always check this date when shopping because you don’t want to bring an expired—or close-to-expiring—product home. If products in your cupboard have expired, discard them to avoid becoming ill.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has posted a Food Labeling Fact Sheet that offers specific information on baby food, meat, poultry, eggs and prepared foods.

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