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What do food labels really mean?

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milk exp dateby Courtney Davis, Denton County Extension Agent

Ever wonder what the dates on a food package really mean? Is it ever safe to use the product after the date stamped on the package? Here are a few guidelines that may help you answer those questions so that you can save money and not be wasteful with foods that may still be safe to eat.

The “sell by” date is the last date in which the food should be sold. Most foods are safe to eat after this date IF they have been handled and stored safely.  The exception to this is fresh produce that has been washed and bagged – it is recommended that you not use bagged produce after the date on the package.  Do not buy food after the “sell by” date.

The “best if used by” date on the package should be eaten before this date for best quality.  Most foods are safe to eat after this date if they have been handled and stored safely.  Do not buy or eat bagged produce after the “best if used by” date.

If the date stamped on a package has a “use by” date, this is the last date you should eat the food for best quality.  Most foods are safe to eat after this date if they have been handled and stored safely.

Lastly, “expiration dates” refer to the last date that the food is considered safe to eat.  Most foods with an expiration date should be thrown away after the date has passed.  Eggs are the one exception.  The date on the carton of eggs actually guarantees the grade of the egg, and not its safety. Eggs are considered safe for consumption up to thirty days after the expiration date.

Regardless of the date on the package, any ready to eat meats (such as lunch meats and hot dogs) should be consumed within seven days after the package is opened.

Milk can generally be used for 5-7 days after the date on the carton if it has been handled and stored under optimum conditions.

The most important thing to remember when investigating the safety of a food item for your family is when in doubt, throw it out.  Foodborne illness is not something to take lightly and the health and wellbeing of your family is not something you want to put at risk for an outdated food item.

For more information on the safety of food products and how long they can be safely stored in your home, visit the Denton County AgriLife website at denton.agrilife.org.

Courtney Davis is the Denton County Extension Agent for Family and Consumer Sciences.  She can be reached at 940-349-2882 or cmdavis@ag.tamu.edu.

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About The Author

Max Miller is the publisher of The Cross Timbers Gazette.

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