Dates on food packages are intended to ensure quality — not safety. They aren't required by law. (Some exceptions exist, such as infant formula.)
So what do they mean?
- Sell by. This date tells the grocer how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date is past.
- Best if used by (or before). This date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
- Use by. This date indicates quality; there may be a decline in quality after this date. This date is set by the manufacturer.
- Closed or coded dates. These are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer. These may be used in food recalls.
Rather than relying on these dates, make it a habit to use or freeze perishable food within a few days of purchase. Freezing ensures safety indefinitely. However, quality will decline over time.