Food Sell By Date (aired 8/29/04)

These days it seems a lot of what you see on the supermarket shelves have dates on them. But what do they really mean? Consumer Reports helps to decode the numbers.

If you're stumped by some of the dates you find on food in the grocery store you're not alone.

You may be surprised to learn the federal government does not require dates on most foods. The exception, baby formula, which must have a “use by” date. Using formula by this date assures it meets nutritional and quality standards.

Poultry also has to be marked when it was packed, or with a “sell by” date. You want to look for that date to be sure it hasn't passed. Once purchased, plan on cooking the chicken or freezing it within 2 days.

Consumer Reports grocery expert Tod Marks says dates on other foods get a big murky. "For the most part it's the manufacturers themselves that have initiated product dating."

Here's how to decode a lot of what you see, milk and yogurt often have “sell by” dates. Remember, that's the last day a store can sell an item, but it's still safe to eat. With milk you can drink it as long as it's properly refrigerated, for about 7 days beyond the sell by date. With yogurt you usually have longer than that, as long as it looks and smells good.

There's another date you see a lot on everything from cereal to taco dinner kits. “Best or better if used by” is the last date the manufacturer considers the product will be at peak flavor while quality might start to deteriorate, it's still safe to eat these foods past these days.

As for many of the other food dates you see, you can figure most are there to help with a recall or let grocery stores know when to rotate products off the shelf.

Consumer Reports says whether a food product is dated or not, if something doesn't look right or smell right, don't eat it.

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