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Code Dates Decoded

Rick Williamson | March 26, 2019

Food | Inside Magazine

Numbers, Letters and Codes. What Do They Mean?

Trust Your Senses

In the end, consumers should always pay attention to the instructions on the package and use their best judgment about food products.

“Use all of your senses, especially eyes, nose and touch. If it doesn’t look right, smell right or feel right, it’s better to discard the product and avoid an unpleasant experience,” Carlson recommended.

Another resource to verify the safety of a food item is to call the phone number listed on the package. “We’re here to help. If people have questions about a product, give us a ring, send an email or contact us via our social media channels.” Anderson added. “We’ll have the answer.”

So, what does it all mean? Even though formats may vary from product to product, this quick reference guide is a good resource for decoding code dates.

  • Sell By Date

    This date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before that date. You should always pay attention to the instructions on the package and use your best judgment about when to consume the product.

  • Best by Date

    This date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date. These terms are typically used on products that lose flavor and texture well before they would be unsafe to eat, like chips and sodas.

  • Use by Date

    This date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. This date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.

  • Expires on Date

    This is the last date that a product can be used. These terms are commonly found on items that perish quickly, like milk and eggs. These are products that may go bad shortly after that date. Additionally, this term is also found on infant formula, which is one of the few items the federal government requires an expiration date on.

  • Use or Freeze By Date

    Certain products can be frozen to prolong their life. This date indicates the last possible day to either prepare the product or freeze it. In most cases, items can be stored in a freezer for up to six months, then thawed in a refrigerator for two to three days and then prepared.

  • Closed or Coded Dates

    “Closed dates” or “coded dates” are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer. These may be hard to decipher or may appear to be an arbitrary string of numbers and letters, as they are not typically intended to be used by consumers. Each manufacturer has its own system for coding packages with these, but sometimes these dates can give you additional information, such as when the product was made. Oftentimes, these codes are accompanied by one of the above date descriptions.

    Example: L18325

    “L” means lot code, “18” is the year produced and “325” is the day of the year produced.

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