I encourage consumers to read labels on food. There are standards defined for the Nutrition Facts label, but date labeling by manufacturers is inconsistent with phrases like “best by or sell by.” Confusion over date labeling accounts for an estimated 20 percent of consumer food waste.

Food manufacturers may donate or sell some products that are near or past the printed date. Often, consumers think of the printed date as an expiration date, but only infant formula is required by federal law or regulation to place a quality-based date label. It indicates that the manufacturer guarantees the nutrient content and the general acceptability of the quality of the formula up to that date.

Surplus and other bargain stores often keep good food from being wasted and provide nutrition at a good price – when the food has been handled safely. It is legal for a store to sell food that is past the “sell by or best by” date.

Who comes up with the dates printed on food packages? Manufacturers apply date labels at their own discretion. They may test food to examine food quality and flavor over time. Or they may have an idea that the eggs should be dated three weeks from the packing date (since the competitor dates at four weeks). K-State Research and Extension’s guidance for home food preservation encourages people to use home canned items in a year (for best quality and to make room for next year’s garden bounty).

A product that is past the “sell by or best by” date doesn’t magically go “bad” or is unsafe on that date. If processed incorrectly or the product container was damaged, the food could be unsafe even before a “best by” date.

As a consumer, it is important to inspect all foods visually. Never buy any can of food that looks swollen, has a bulge in it or is dented along the seams that run along the top or side. The damage may have allowed bacteria to get inside. For the same reason, don’t buy any sealed package that is torn, has a hole in it or is coming apart at the seams.

Don’t buy frozen foods whose packages show that the food inside may have melted, then frozen again. For example, in cardboard-carton type packages, food stains on the package or other signs that the package has leaked are evidence that this may have happened. Frozen food that is thawed, then frozen again, gives bacteria a chance to grow.

If the products have changed noticeably in color, consistency or texture, consumers may want to avoid eating them. 

If you have questions or concerns about the quality, safety and labeling of the packaged foods you buy, reach out to the company that produced the product. Many packaged foods provide the company’s contact information on the package.

Please note that some local food pantries have policies regarding product dating and may not distribute food items that are past printed dates. Contact your local food pantry to inquire about their policies. Cash donations are always greatly appreciated by food pantries.

Upcoming K-State Research and Extension Events

• Power of Produce (POP Club) activities, youth ages 5-12 can earn POP bucks to spend on produce at market

• July 9 — Ark City Farm and Art Market, 4-7 p.m.

• July 13 — Walnut Valley Farmers Market, Winfield 7:30 -11 a.m.

• July 16 — Ark City Farm and Art Market, 4-7 p.m.

Becky Reid is the family and consumer sciences agent for K-State Research and Extension, Cowley County. She can be reached at (620) 221-5450 or (620) 441-4565.

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