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Sell by dates designed to keep consumers safe

By Staff
Julie Dutton, Morgan County Cooperative Extension System
If your plans for a romantic dinner begin with a peek inside your refrigerator, check twice to be sure you've not missed the moment of opportunity. That nice chicken breast, pork loin or steak bought a week ago and marked "sell by Feb. 1" may have passed its prime.
Dating can be delicate – it's important to know when the timing is right. "Sell by/use by/purchase by/best-if-used-by" – how do consumers know which to follow? To eliminate the guessing, USDA offers some practical guidance on how to read those dates – on food labels – and stay healthy.
Generally, dates such as "sell by" are voluntary, meaning they are not mandated by the federal government. Dates are provided by manufacturers as a quality guide. One exception is baby formula and some baby food in which this requirement is linked to nutritional adequacy.
So what about that chicken you plan to roast and serve? Think about timing when you're in the store. Be sure that you buy fresh chicken before the "sell by" date on the package. After that, you can keep it in your refrigerator 1-2 days before cooking. Or, pop it in the freezer and extend its possibilities for up to one year. Remember that Listeria monocytogenes (Lm), a microorganism that can make you sick, can grow while refrigerated. Thus, USDA is stressing quick use of the product, or freezing, to arrest growth of the pathogen.
Is coffee and hot cocoa being served for dessert? If you are using milk, be sure to take a look at the date. Usually milk keeps seven days after the date listed on the carton if it has been refrigerated. Baking a chocolate cake with fresh eggs? Just check the date on the carton – eggs in the shell and refrigerated can last a month. But hard-cooked eggs can last one week in the refrigerator.
Here are some more tips that you should keep in mind:
When is it time to say goodbye to that package of unopened lunch meat? Two weeks, but deli meats sliced at the store should be eaten within one week.
When is it time to toss the package of opened lunch meat? Just three to five days.
Changing Dates: It's illegal to alter, change or cover up a date on a product packaged under federal inspection, such as meat and poultry products.
Food can become unsafe if mishandled at home, such as when defrosting food at room temperature for several hours, or letting raw meat juices contaminate vegetables. Bacteria could grow, causing foodborne illness.
Maintaining the refrigerator below 40 degrees Fahrenheit can slow the growth of dangerous microorganisms such as Lm.
Stay safe by following the food safety guidelines: clean, separate, cook and chill.
If you have a question about meat, poultry or egg products, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline toll free at 1-888-MPHotline or 1-888-674-6854, TTY: 1-800-256-7072.
You can call the year-round hotline Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. EST (English or Spanish). Listen to timely recorded food safety messages at the same number 24 hours a day. Check out the FSIS Web site at . E-mail questions can be answered by .
Dates on Labels
"Sell-By" dates tell the store how long to offer a product for sale. Make sure you buy it before the "sell-by" date.
"Best if Used By" dates recommend best flavor or quality and doesn't refer to food safety.
"Use-By" dates refer to the last date that the manufacturer suggests is best for the product to be consumed.