Most states require food manufacturers to mark perishable foods with a date so customers can gauge product freshness, but since there are no federal regulations requiring products to be dated, there isn’t a uniform system.
Here is a guide to the most common terms and what they really mean…
“Sell-by” dates let stores know how long products can remain on the shelves. They also are used as guides for rotating stock. The sell-by date takes into consideration the length of time a product typically sits on the shelf at home after purchase. Perishable foods remain good for a period of time after the sell-by dates, assuming they have been stored properly.
General guidelines for shelf life beyond sell-by dates:
- Eggs usually are good for three to five weeks past the sell-by date.
- Milk typically is good for up to seven days past the sell-by date.
- Fresh chicken and turkey should be cooked or frozen within two days after the date.
- Fresh beef, pork and lamb should be cooked or frozen within three to five days after the date.
- Ground meats should be cooked or frozen within two days of the date.
- Unopened processed meats, such as bacon, hot dogs and luncheon meats, should be used within two weeks after the sell-by date.
- Unopened canned meats, such as tuna and sardines, will keep for about two years beyond the sell-by date.
- “Best if used by” and “use by” dates refer to the point after which peak quality — flavor or texture — begins to decline. These are not safety or purchase dates.
Caution: Shelf life depends upon handling and storage conditions. Fresh perishable foods should be kept at 38°F to 40°F for maximum safety and quality.