Product Dating FAQ

Question: What is product dating?

Answer: There are two main types of product dating, "Open Dating" and "Closed Dating." The most common form of dating is referred to as "Open Dating." Open Dating uses a calendar date as opposed to a code on a food product. Common examples include "Sell by", "Best if used by" and "Use by." Open dating is not a safety date. It is commonly found on perishable foods such as meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products. Retailers are forbidden to sell baby formula past the Sell by date. In Pennsylvania, retailers are not allowed to sell fluid milk past the "Sell by date." Occasionally, canned goods and boxed goods will display an "Open" or calendar date. These are "Best If Used By" dates for peak quality. These are the manufacturers' recommendations for maximum freshness and nutrient value, not safety dates. "Closed Dating" or "Coded Dating" generally refers to a manufacturer's code stamped on the product. These codes typically appear on shelf stable products such as canned and boxed foods. Some manufacturers stamp the date the product was manufactured or packaged. Some use a product code that is not able to be deciphered. (US & PA Department of Agriculture)

Question: Is dating required by federal law?

Answer: Except for infant formula and some baby food, product dating is NOT required by Federal regulations. However, if a calendar date is used, it must express both the month and day of the month (and the year, in the case of shelf-stable and frozen products). If a calendar date is shown, immediately adjacent to the date must be a phrase explaining the meaning of the date such as "Sell by" or "Use before." There is no uniform or universally system used for food dating in the US. (US Dept. of Agriculture)

Question: Are retailers allowed to sell products beyond the expiration date of the package?

Answer: Yes, as long as a product is wholesome, a retailer may legally sell grocery items including fresh or processed meat and poultry products beyond the expiration date of the package. (Adapted from Food Marketing Institute Information)

Question: Are retailers allowed to sell frozen foods beyond the expiration date of the package?

Answer: Once a perishable product is frozen at proper temperatures, it does not matter if the date expires because food kept frozen continuously is safe indefinitely. Packing is important to the quality and appearance of frozen foods. Products exposed to air can develop "freezer burn" which does not affect the safety of the product, but can impact taste and quality. (Adapted information from PA Dept. Of Agriculture and American Frozen Food Institute.)

Question: What is a product's shelf life?

Answer: This varies depending on the type of product. Many processed and packaged foods are shelf stable, which means that they do not require refrigeration until opened. These items are often referred to as non-perishable for these reasons. Their shelf life is evaluated in terms of the quality of the product. Canned foods can last for years, because shelf stable foods experience very slow rate of organic changes. After several years, however, the product may lose taste and color. (Adapted from National Food Processors Association information)

Question: How long does canned food remain edible and retain its nutritional content?

Answer: Canned food has a shelf life of at least two years from the date of processing. Canned food retains its safety and nutritional value well beyond two years, but it may have some variation in quality, such as a change of color or texture. Canning is a high-heat process that renders the food commercially sterile. Food safety is not an issue in products kept on the shelf in moderate temperatures (75 degrees Fahrenheit and below). The acid content of the food and the lining of the can are important factors in a productís quality and appearance after long periods of storage. (Adapted from, Canned Food Alliance and The National Food Processors Association)

Question: What do can codes mean?

Answer: A can must exhibit a packing code to enable tracking of the product in interstate commerce. This enables manufacturers to rotate their stock as well as to locate their products in the event of a recall. These codes, which appear as a series of letters and/or numbers, might refer to the date or time of manufacture. They are not meant for the consumer to interpret as "Use-by" dates. There is no book which tells how to translate the codes into dates. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)

Question: How long can shelf-stable foods be safely stored on the shelf?

Answer: According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), food can be safe forever from a food borne-illness standpoint - but if shelf-stable food has been on the shelf for an extended period of time, you might not want to eat it because the quality may not be good. In this case the "Best if used by" date on the label of the product is an indication whether or not the quality of the food is good. Food quality deals with the taste, texture, and nutritional value of food. The FDA does not require an expiration date for shelf-stable foods, since the storage time for these foods is a quality issue, not a food safety concern. (FDA Food Safety)