When it comes to checking food labels, people mostly look at expiration dates to ensure that the product is safe for consumption. Although these labels and dates are placed to safeguard consumer health, they also refer to product quality, which means you can still eat them but might not taste as good as they were intended to be. 

Meanwhile, food product dating refers to the stamped dates on products to, firstly, help retailers safely determine how long they should sell them and, more importantly, advise customers on when they can consume a product at its best quality. Some have “open dating,” in which calendar dates are used and are typically found among perishable foods such as meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy. Meanwhile, “closed dating” or “coded dating” adopt codes and usually appear on shelf-stable products such as canned goods and boxed food. 

In the Philippines, the Department of Health issued Administrative Order No. 88-B series of 1984 or the Rules and Regulations Governing the Labeling of Prepackaged Food Products Distributed in the Philippines, which was revised in 2014, to establish standards and qualities of food.

Included in this order is the requirement to indicate expiration dates or recommended last consumption dates complete with day, month, and year on all product labels (except for alcoholic beverages) that signify when the product will have lost its expected quality and as a result would deem it unmarketable. You may have encountered these dates and seen variations such as “use by,” “sell by,” and “best before” but these do not always mean “rotten by” or that the food cannot be consumed anymore. Let’s take a closer look. 

Sell by

This date explains how long to display the product for sale. If a product has a “sell by” date, cook or freeze it by these times after purchase:

  • Poultry – 1 or 2 days
  • Beef, veal, pork, and lamb – 3 to 5 days
  • Ground meat and ground poultry – 1 or 2 days
  • Fresh variety meats (liver, tongue, brain, kidneys, heart, chitterlings) – 1 or 2 days
  • Cured ham, cook-before-eating – 5 to 7 days
  • Sausage from pork, beef or turkey, uncooked – 1 or 2 days
  • Eggs – 3 to 5 weeks

According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service in a food product dating primer revised in 2013

In the US, eggs are not required by the USDA to have a “sell by” date, but they need to have a “pack date” or the date marking when the eggs were washed, graded, and placed in the carton.   

In the guidelines above, the USDA advises consumers to use eggs within three to five weeks from purchase and states, “The ‘sell-by’ date will usually expire during that length of time, but the eggs are perfectly safe to use.” If you want to be completely sure that the eggs are safe for consumption, you can do the float test to check if it’s rotten or not. Fill a pot or basin with water and place the eggs in, if they sink to the bottom then they’re still fresh but if they float they’re rotten. 

Use by or best if used by

This is not a purchase or safety date, but a date recommended for the best flavor or quality. This is determined by the manufacturer to ensure buyers that the product is of good quality within this time frame. However, if the product has been mishandled such as fresh food being left out at room temperature for an extended period or developing an unpleasant odor, flavor or appearance, it may be unsafe to consume regardless of the “use by” date.

Baby food or infant formula, in particular, is advised to be consumed strictly before its “use by” date since it can lose nutrients or separate and clog the bottle nipple if stored too long.

Closed or coded dates

These are found on canned goods and boxed food not necessarily intended for the consumers to interpret as an expiration or product quality date. Although some products may include the date of manufacture, these are meant to guide manufacturers and retailers to keep track of products as they are delivered to different stores and rotated in the event of a recall. 

Generally speaking, all of these dates are considered guides to determine the freshness of food. But you should also trust your instincts when it comes to food spoilage. Salad greens, for instance, should be tossed out once they begin to develop a slimy feel regardless of its “consume before” date.

Meat isn’t safe for consumption once its color changes and begins to feel slimy as well. Milk freshness depends on your refrigerator’s temperature and how well you seal its container before storage. If it starts developing an odd smell, it’s no longer fresh and should be disposed of. 

No two foods may have the same true expiration since dates can vary depending on government laws so make sure to check for factors that can indicate spoilage, especially if the product has been sitting in the refrigerator or cupboard for quite some time.

It’s good to be careful with what you eat to avoid foodborne illnesses, but think twice before throwing out “expired” items; You could end up spending and wasting more.