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Nutrition and You!

How to decipher dates on food package labels

Excerpted from the Nutrition and You! blog on

We all have played the Food Dating Game. It’s when you find that package of raw chicken breasts in the back of the refrigerator, and the date has expired. Thus, the game begins. Should I cook it and eat it? Should I toss it? Will I get sick if I eat it?

Keep in mind that the date on the food package does not refer to food safety, but to the quality of the food. In other words, this is the date by which you should consume the product in order to enjoy it at its best quality. According to the US Food and Drug Administration, whenever you see a date on the label, there must be a phrase next to the date that tells you how to interpret it.

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If you see:

“Sell By” next to the date, you should purchase the product on or before that date for the best quality.

“Best if Used By,” you should consume the product by this time in order to enjoy it at its best quality.

“Use By,” you should consume it by this date or freeze it if you don’t plan to eat it by this date.

Of course, any food that has spoiled and gives off an off-odor or appearance, regardless of the date, should be discarded.

Now, the big question: Suppose you find a package of raw chicken buried in your refrigerator and the “Best if Used By” expired yesterday, is it still safe to eat?

If the food has been handled properly and kept in the refrigerator at 40 degrees F. or below, it should be safe, wholesome, and of good quality, according to the FDA. In this situation, follow these guidelines from the FDA in the chart at left.

Always remember: When in doubt, toss it out!

Joan Salge Blake is a clinical associate professor and registered dietitian in Boston University’s Nutrition Program. Read more of her blog at
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