Read Labels: Food Safety for Fresh and Processed Foods

Is this food safe to eat? Read and decode food labels and date stamps to understand food safety terms to buy fresh, high quality food at peak flavor.

Manufacturers use a variety of terminology to describe freshness and also expiry. By understanding what these terms mean, you can get the best foods in terms of freshness and quality, and not accidentally poison yourself or your family.

If the foods don’t carry date stamps or expiry dates, then use common sense plus your nose and eyes. If the food looks or smells off, don’t eat it. But keep in mind that not all foods that have gone bad will show telltale signs.

Food Safety Tips: How to Read Date Stamps on Fresh Food

Star Lawrence, in her article “Do Food Expiration Dates Really Matter? (WedMD) explains some of the standard date stamp terms used on many fresh products.

“Sell by” date: This is the manufacturer’s guide to the retailer and tells the stores when to remove or pull the product from sale. This is a recommendation rather than a legal requirement, so check the date carefully.

Because the “sell by” date is concerned with quality rather than safety, the food is still edible after that date, generally for about 5 days or so. However, the item might not taste quite as fresh or have the same texture or consistency. So, try to buy the food before that date.

“Best if used by (or before)” date or “use by” date: Like the “sell by” date, this is a quality rather than a safety issue. This refers to the date at which the manufacturers has determined that the product is at peak flavour and freshness.

“Packed on” date: This date may be used for fresh meat products to tell consumers when the meat was packaged.

“Guaranteed fresh” date: This is generally used for baked goods and refers to freshness. While items bought or used after this date will still be edible, they may be stale or less appealing.

“Expiration” or “expiry” date: This date is a safety issue and indicates the last day the product should be consumed.

Food Health and Safety Practices Include Proper Handling and Storage of Food, Not Just Date Stamps

All these date stamps assume the foods have been handled properly during transportation, while in the store, and in your home. If the foods have been subject to poor handling, they will spoil much faster. Discard any foods that have developed an off odor, flavor or appearance due to bacterial growth, no matter what its expiry date, to avoid foodborne illness.

The Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), US Department of Agriculture warns consumers about other examples of potential mishandling of food. These include any products that have been:

defrosted at room temperature more than two hours;
cross contaminated e.g. by touching raw meat; or
handled by people who don’t use proper sanitary practices.

According to the FSIS, milk is generally still good for week after the “Sell by” date; eggs for 3-5 weeks if stored in their original containers in the back of the fridge where it’s colder rather than the on the door. FSIS also has charts containing more information and timelines regarding refrigerator home storage (at 40 °F or below) of fresh or uncooked products, as well as sealed, processed foods. Or check out Business Week’s slide show, “A Guide to Shelf Life.”

Always read food labels carefully and follow handling and preparation instructions to ensure food safety, top quality and freshness.

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