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Wilburn: Know difference between date labels
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Is the food you buy fresh enough to eat? How long will it remain fresh? The answer to these questions can be found on most food labels.

With "open dating" you can get a good idea about the freshness of food.

Open dates are calendar dates that are imprinted or stamped on a food label. The date lets consumers know how long a product will remain at best quality. All package dates should be used as a guide, except expiration dates.

Companies are not required to print dates on food packages. It is strictly a voluntary practice, except for infant formula and some baby foods. By law, these must carry an expiration date. Never use these products after the expiration date.

Different companies often state dates in different ways. For example, Nov. 25, 2008, can be written three different ways:

Month and date: Nov. 25

Numbers and a dash: 11-25

Or just numbers: 1125

There are three types of dates on food labels.

‘Sell by' date

A "sell by" date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. This date allows for more time for storage and use at home. Even if the food is sold on the "sell by" date, it can still be eaten later.

Many people unknowingly pour fresh milk down the drain. The date on the label is a "sell by" date for the grocery store. It is not a "use by" date for the consumer.

Generally milk is safe seven to 10 days after the date on the label. If your milk does not last this long, check the temperature of your refrigerator. It should be 40 F or below.

‘Best if used by' date

This date suggests how long the manufacturer thinks the food will remain at peak quality. The label might read, "Best if used by November 2008." However, the product still may be used after this date. Although it may no longer meet the company's standard for freshness, it is not a safety date.

‘Use by' date

This is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality.

The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.

If products are used past the expiration date, the nutrient content may be lower and the product may not be of good quality.

Therefore, for infant formula, this should be considered an expiration date, and the formula should not be used past the date.

Let the date on the label be your guide to freshness. Always look for signs of spoilage when using packaged foods. If food has mold, an off color or smells bad, throw it away. Never taste food that may be spoiled.

Adapted from: Drusilla Banks, nutrition and wellness educator, University of Illinois Extension.

Debbie Wilburn is county extension agent in family and consumer science with the Hall County Extension. Contact: 770-535-8290.