When I was a child, my mother occasionally asked me to postulate (by smell) on the freshness of perishable foods that, in a few terrible instances, had overstayed their welcome in our refrigerator. Back then, a product’s shelf life was often determined simply by sight or smell. 
Today, thankfully, many perishable foods have dates printed on them to let us know when they should no longer be used. Because many products are branded with multiple or different types of dates, however, this system can sometimes be confusing to consumers. In addition, companies seeking to maximize the use of packaging space with other information sometimes place these dates in areas where their customers are less likely to see them.

The “sell by” date, found on many food products, is generally used by stores to facilitate inventory rotation; ensuring product does not remain on the shelves indefinitely. Products with sell by dates generally remain safe for consumption after the date has passed, provided they are stored appropriately. Although many raw meat products contain sell by dates, these are helpful only if the food has been kept at a safe temperature. Moreover, they do not inform consumers the date by which the product should be used.

The “best before” date appears on many frozen, canned or dried foods. This date serves as an advisory to consumers. It means that the product will generally maintain its optimal taste and/or texture only until the date listed. Eggs, however, are the exception to the rule. Although most eggs carry a best before date, they should typically be used within six weeks of packaging.

Finally, and most important, is the “use by” date. This date is intended to alert consumers when a product may no longer be safe to eat. Some foods, by their nature, carry a higher risk of microbiological contamination, and therefore should never be consumed after the date marked on the package. In turn, companies that sell raw animal products (such as meat) should consider printing “use or freeze by” dates on their packages. The USDA, of course, strongly encourages consumers to cook or freeze ground beef within two days after purchase.

We live in a pathogen-rich world, and the “smell test” cannot always tell your customers what they need to know. Consumers are far less likely to experience foodborne illness if they are eating products before the expiration of their shelf life. Therefore, in the interest of reducing foodborne illness (and the lawsuits which often follow), consider placing “use or freeze by” dates on your raw meat products.

Put simply, make sure your products — and your labels — always “pass the smell test.”

Shawn K. Stevens defends and counsels meat companies in foodborne illness matters throughout the United States. Mr. Stevens also assists industry clients with regulatory compliance, recall planning, crisis management and other issues in advance of and following major food-product recalls. Additional information about his practice can be found at www.defendingfoodsafety.com.