The Importance of Expiration Dates on Packaging

What do all the different types of dates on food mean?

With the exception of infant formula, the FDA does not require food firms to place “expired by”, “use by” or “best before” dates on food products. This information is entirely at the discretion of the manufacturer. However, dating methods used are as follows:

Prodcut Expiration Dates

The terms below refer to how long the food can be safely consumed without worry of spoilage according to the USDA.

  • Use-By: This is the most popular method of notating food products that spoil quickly. Required in many countries for foods that do not show easily identifiable signs of spoilage (appearance or smell). Examples: dairy products, meats, dips, pre-packaged fresh foods, packaged fruits & vegetables.
  • Expires: This date tells you when the food product may expire. The food should be consumed on or before this date.

The next set of terms refers to how long the food product will be at its best quality according to the USDA. These dates are not indicators of when the food will spoil.

  • Best if Used By or Best Before: Refers to the date that food is recommended for best flavor or quality. The food item is likely to be safe to consume after this date, but may have lost some of its flavor, taste, or freshness. This dating method is used on a wide variety of packaged foods.

Finally these terms are provided for the assistance of the manufacturer, vendor, distributor, etc. according to the USDA.

  • Sell-By: This date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. These products should be bought before the date expires.
  • Packed On: Indicates the date that the food product was packed.
  • Baked On / Baked For: Indicates when item was baked (for bakery items with a shelf life of less than 7 days). The date tells the store how long the item may be displayed. Examples include breads, bagels, rolls, cakes, and cookies.
  • Can Codes: Canned goods often have a stamped code containing a series of letters and numbers. Part of this code contains a date. The information in the codes allows for tracking, shipping, identification in the event of a recall, and rotation of stock in the warehouse.

What about non food products, such as sunscreen or cosmetics? Are expiration dates on these products necessary?

Sun Screen and Cosmetics Expiration Dates

Currently sunscreen products are not required to have an expiration date. However, many believe they should. An article in The Legislative Gazette, states New York is in the process of passing a bill that would require sunscreen products to include expiration dates. This bill has passed the Assembly and Senate, and was sent to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office. The hope of this bill is to ensure that New York residents are not overexposed to sun’s UV rays. The UV rays from the sun are one of the leading causes of skin cancer in the US. This bill would require expiration dates on all sunscreen products.

In the US there are no FDA regulations for expiration dates for skin-care or makeup products either. However, most do include expected expiration dates after first opening. According to the FDA shelf life of products is the responsibility of the manufacturer to determine. Eye cosmetics typically have a shelf life of a few months due to the risk of eye infections, while skin creams and powders can last up to a year or longer. The FDA states “consumers should be aware that expiration dates are simply “rules of thumb,” and that a product’s safety may expire long before the expiration date if the product has not been properly stored. On the other hand, products stored under ideal conditions may be acceptable long after the expiration date has been reached.”

The importance of expiration dates depends on the product. Consumers need to be aware of expiration dates and what they mean, as well as using their own best judgment.