THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Which date means ... what?

By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / April 13, 2011

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Even as we study those numbers printed on packages, many of us have no idea what the dates mean. Standing in the bean aisle in Trader Joe’s, in Brookline, Alex Rifkin, a student at Boston University School of Hospitality Administration, asked a question posed by millions of shoppers before him: “Sell-by date,’’ he cried out. “What does that mean?’’

Here is some clarity provided by the US Department of Agriculture for fresh and frozen foods:

A SELL-BY date tells the store how long to sell the product. Buy before the date.

BEST IF USED BY (OR BEFORE) tells you the date recommended for best flavor or quality. Not a purchase or sell-by date. The last date recommended to use the product at peak quality is the USE-BY date. That has been determined by the manufacturer.

BUT IS IT SAFE? Here’s where things get interesting. The USDA website also reports: “ ‘Use-by’ dates usually refer to best quality and are not safety dates. But even if the date expires during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome, and of good quality if handled properly and kept at 40 degrees [Fahrenheit] or below.’’

NOW, FOR QUALITY The website includes a chart with guidelines for how long past the “sell-by’’ date a product should be cooked or frozen, and also gives guidance on frozen foods that might disappoint some members of the food police. “Food stored constantly at 0 degrees F will always be safe,’’ according to the agency. “Only the quality suffers with lengthy freezer storage.’’

UNCONVINCED? Pertinent website addresses for more information on fresh, frozen, and canned food are www.fsis.usda.gov/factsheets/focus_on_freezing/index.asp and origin-www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/Food_Product_Dating/index.asp. They make good reading — and they may settle a few long-running disputes. Or not.