By Mary Hunt

Pop quiz: You pull a chicken from the fridge to fix for dinner and notice that yesterday was the “Sell By” date. You should:
a. Throw it away.
b. Cook it to an internal temperature of 195F. minimum to kill the salmonella.
c. Relax. FDA regulations required this chicken be sold before the date on the label.
d. This a trick quiz.
If you selected “d,” you are right. This is a trick question, and a very confusing topic.
The truth is that “c” would be correct if not for that word “regulation.” Except for infant formula and some baby food, product dating is not required by federal regulations.
Additionally, other than the 20 states that require product dating, it’s voluntary on the part of manufacturers and processors. Stores are not legally required to remove outdated products from their shelves, so it’s up to you to make sure you are getting the freshest products.

What is dating?
An “open date” on food packaging (as opposed to a code) is a calendar date stamped on a product’s package to help the store determine how long to display that food item for sale. This date helps customers know the time limit to purchase or use the product at its best quality, but it is not a safety date.

“Best Before,” “Better if Used Before”
or “Best if Used By”
This tells you how long the product will retain its best flavor and highest quality, as determined by the manufacturer.
Baked goods, cereals, snacks and some canned foods feature these phrases. The food is still safe to eat after this date, but may have changed somewhat in taste or texture.
“Expiration,” “Use By” or “Use Before”
These phrases appear on yogurt, eggs and other foods that require refrigeration. If you haven’t used the product by this date, toss it.

“Guaranteed Fresh”
This date is often used for perishable baked goods. Beyond this date, freshness is no longer guaranteed although the product may still be edible.

“Sell By”
This date is usually found on highly perishable foods like meat, milk and bread. This date allows time for the product to be stored and used at home.
Depending on the product, it’s still safe past this date. Milk can be good for a week beyond its “Sell By” date, if properly refrigerated. At its “Sell By” date, meat is still fresh but should be consumed or frozen within 48 hours.

“Pack Date”
Some products bear a “pack date,” indicating when it was packaged. This information is often encrypted so that only manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers can read it. The pack date on some products, such as eggs, is shown by a Julian date (1 through 365), January 1 is number 1, and December 31 is number 365.
Bottom line, the fresher your food, the better it is and the longer you have to use it up at home. Tip: In a properly stocked store, the freshest items will be at the back of the shelf or underneath older items.

Mary Hunt is the founder of, a personal finance member website. You can email her at, or write to Everyday Cheapskate, P.O. Box 2099, Cypress, CA 90630. To find out more about Mary Hunt and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at