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Expiration, Use-by, and Sell-by Dates
Part 1: Expiration dating is not federally required on all products
More of this Feature
• Part 1: Government regulations
Part 2: Expiration date terminology
Part 3: Food storage tips and hints
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The twentieth century ushered in the age of packaged foods, making use of preservatives and innovative packaging to lengthen the shelf-life of many foods. Most packaged foods include some type of expiration, sell-by or use-by date imprinted on the container. Figuring out the intent of that date is not always an easy matter. Even the general industry terms for it, open-dating and closed dating, raise questions.

You may be surprised to learn that dating is not required by US federal law, with the exception of infant formula and baby foods which must be withdrawn by their expiration date. For all other foods, except dairy products in some states, freshness dating is strictly voluntary on the part of manufacturers. To further shake your confidence, stores are not legally required to remove outdated products from their shelves. So, it's the old caveat even when it comes to food: Buyer beware and always read the label.

In order to ensure you are getting the freshest product, it is necessary to scrutinize packaging and purchase the items with the most recent dating. Although most markets are vigilant about rotating stock, some are not. In a properly stocked store, the freshest items will be at the back of the shelf or underneath older items. This helps the store move older merchandise and protects manufacturers from potential liability claims.

So what do the terms mean to consumers?

Next page > Expiration date terminology > Page 1, 2, 3

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