Expiration dates on foods, beverages, and other perishable products are based on a fairly simple concept: that product is within a reasonable state of freshness and safe to consume or use. Anyone who has ever actually tried to decipher the expiration date codes or define the difference between best by vs. expiration date labeling knows that there is much potential for confusion.
The reason why there is so much discrepancy between food freshness and expiration dates is that these numbers, with some exceptions, are typically determined by the product manufacturer and not any central regulatory body.
Although there is some consistency across certain food, beverage, and health products—usually based on their preparation and packaging—there is no one standard expiration date format. Some manufacturers will provide a clear use-by or best-before date, while other products will have a series of letters and numerals.
Even with the assistance of an expiration date code converter, these codes still pose uncertainty; some will specify an expiration date while others will denote the date of processing.
With all of these variables, it’s easy to see why consumers are confused and why many simply ignore best-by /use-before labels. However, a basic understanding of how to read an expiration date code can help consumers feel a little more savvier at the grocery store.
Demystifying Sell-By Phrasing And Expiration Date Codes
Depending on the product, a manufacturer may include one of the following phrases on a product label followed by a date: sell-by, use-by, and best-by. Sell-by dates are intended for retailers and indicate how long a product should be displayed for sale. Use-by dates indicate that a product should be considered peak quality up to that date.
The use-by recommendation and not a safety indicator, except in the case of some specialized products like infant formula. Best-by dates are similar to use-by dates and typically represent when the product is at optimal quality for use and consumption.
If there are no signs of spoilage, such as changes in odor, texture, or flavor, most products can be safely used or consumed when sell-by, use-by, and best-by dates have passed. Some manufacturers may still use these dates as limitations on money-back and customer satisfaction guarantees. Expiration date codes are somewhat more complex. These codes are most frequently used on canned foods.
They can specify use-by dates or they may give the date the contents were sealed. Most manufacturers will use their own coding system. Some of these require an expiration date decoder to decipher. Food and beverage manufacturers sometimes provide these decoder tools on their product websites or through a toll-free number.
Although there is no universal expiration coding system, many food canning companies will use the numbers 1 through 9 to indicate which month the product was canned from January through September. To avoid an extra character in their coding system, they use the letters “O”, “N”, and “D” to specify October, November, and December, respectively.
Alternatively, manufacturers may use the letters A through L to correspond with the 12 months of the year, i.e. “A” indicates January, “C” indicates March, “F” indicates June, etc.
The day of the month typically follows. Years are sometimes in conventional numeric form or many are coded by the last digit of the year by decade. These letters and numbers may be preceded or followed by codes that are not relevant to consumers.
For example, Chiquita canned foods use a ten-digit code and only four of those digits indicate the canning date, Hormel canned foods include five digits that indicate the location and manufacturing process in addition to the year of manufacture.
Do Expiration Dates Mean Anything?
Since expiration dates and best-if-used-by labels are so inconsistent, it’s easy to wonder if they serve much of a purpose. For food and beverage manufacturers selling products in European markets, sell-by-dates are required by law.
In the United States, this is only true for infant formula, however, some states maintain laws that require dairy products, eggs, and meat to be clearly labeled with an expiration date. For processed food and beverages, as well as health and beauty products, many quality and safety variables end up beyond the reach of the manufacturer.
This is why expiration and sell-by dates usually err strongly on the side of caution and products are processed and packaged in a way to ensure quality long after these dates have passed. The integrity of package seals, storage temperatures, and other factors also impact the longevity of food, drinks, medication, and cosmetics.
For this reason, it’s generally recommended that consumers judge a product’s freshness based on its smell, texture, and appearance rather than solely relying on expiration dates.