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“Use-By” When?

By Patrice Powers-Barker, OSU Extension, Lucas County

The Truth Contributor


What’s today’s date?  What are the dates on the food items in your refrigerator or pantry? Americans throw out a lot more food than they expect to throw out.  One of many reasons for this might be in part because of unclear date labels on food packages.  What do those dates and phrases really mean?

First, let’s start with food safety. Food safety is an important topic for all people, although there are a few groups of people who are at higher risk of food poisoning. These groups include children younger than five years old, pregnant women, people with weakened immune systems and adults older than 65 years old.


Not all of us fall into those higher risk groups but it’s likely that if we’re eating with other people, someone will be in one of those groups. It is important to follow the four basic steps of food safety for all people. 1) Clean hands and surfaces 2) separate raw meat from ready-to-eat food, 3) Cook to the right temperature and 4) chill raw meat and cooked leftovers promptly (within two hours). These same four basic steps are important for any food preparation whether it’s canned, frozen or fresh food.


No matter what type of food (fresh, canned, frozen), please follow the basic food safety steps. When it comes to food quality (not safety), there is often a peak time for foods for things such as freshness and taste. We want our food to be of high quality but if it is eaten a day or two past the recommended date for quality, it does not necessarily have anything to do with food safety. A food can be safe but not high quality.  For example, if someone leaves the cereal box open, the cereal may become stale – and not the highest quality for enjoyment – but it does not mean it will cause illness. A similar example is frozen food that has been in the freezer for too long. It can be safe to eat but if it has freezer burn it won’t taste as good.  


The goal is to eat food that is good for your health, good for your wallet and good for the environment. This means limiting the amount of food waste. One study estimated that the average American household spends more than $2,000 annually on wasted food.  Will understanding the food labels help you cut food waste and maintain food safety?


Unfortunately, there is no uniform or universally accepted description to use for food. The only type of food that requires a “Use-By” date is infant formula. For all other foods, some examples of commonly used phrases include:

·         Best if Used By/Before indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

·         Sell By tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date.

·         Use By is the last date recommended for the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date (except when used on infant formula).

·         Freeze By is when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.


Canned food might have two different types of codes. They may have a “best if used by” date and they will also have a closed date or code. This code used by the manufacturer indicates when the product was canned. This code doesn’t usually mean anything to the consumer unless there is a food recall. This code is used to track the product, help rotate stock and it will help locate products in the event of a recall. For food safety, don’t let canned foods freeze.


Also, throw away any cans that show signs of bulging, leaking or severely dented. Most canned food products are safe to use after the date if they are properly handled and do not show any signs of spoilage. For best quality (not safety), high-acid canned foods like tomatoes and fruits will keep their best quality for 12 to 18 months. Low-acid foods like meat and vegetables will keep for two to five years.


There is a free app called the FoodKeeper and the same information can be found online at foodsafety.gov. Review and rotate the food in your pantry, cupboard, refrigerator and freezer. If food appears spoiled, don’t keep it for the sake of saving money. To avoid throwing away food, keep in mind the following, be aware of what foods you throw away, don’t buy more foods than can be used before spoiling, plan meals and usually a grocery list. Keep track of the food in your cupboards, refrigerator and freezer and plan snacks and meals from food on hand.


All the information is from the US Food and Drug Administration, the US Department of Agriculture and OSU ChowLine.





Copyright © 2019 by [The Sojourner's Truth]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 10/03/19 14:15:02 -0400.

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