Date marking: What does it mean for a food pantry?

Clarifying product dating for food bank and food pantry volunteers and staff.

An expiration date stamp on a label that reads:
Photo: Dreamstime.

Food banks and food pantries receive and store millions of pounds of donated food and grocery products. They receive donations from a wide variety of food manufacturers, growers and consumers. Product dating or date marking on donated food products can be very confusing to volunteers and staff of food pantries.

Best by, best if used by, sell by, manufacturer’s closed dating, and expiration dates are all terms that can cause concern for the volunteer at a food pantry.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, “open dating” or date marking is a date on the calendar chosen by the manufacturer or retailer for food products. The date gives consumers an estimate of how long food such as dairy, egg, meat and poultry will be at best food quality. The date tells the retail store how long to display the food product. The manufacturer’s “closed dating” is on shelf-stable cans and boxes of food. The codes of letters and numbers provide information on the manufacture date and time and is useful for food banks and food pantries when the product is recalled.

Many times, food pantries receive donated baby formula and baby food, but be aware that according to the United States Food and Drug Administration, infant formula is the only food product required by regulations to have a “use by” date. Michigan State University Extension recommends expired baby formula be thrown away after this date.

Common date marking, or product dating, terms are:

  • “Best by" or "Best if Used by” appears on a food product for quality reasons. For the best flavor or quality, the food product should be used by this date. It is not a food safety date.
  • "Sell-by” indicates how long a store can display a food product for inventory management. It is not based on food safety.
  • "Use-by” is the last date a food product is expected to have peak quality. The exception is baby formula.  Expired baby formula is thrown away.
  • “Freeze-by” date tells when a food product needs to be frozen to keep it a peak quality.  It is not a food safety date.

An estimated 30 percent of food is wasted due to not understanding what these terms mean. The United States Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service recommends food products not showing signs of spoilage are considered wholesome and can be consumed, donated, purchased and sold after the "best if used by" date.

When developing acceptance and distribution guidelines for donated food products at the food pantry, the nonprofit organization should understand the meaning of these phrases. Canned foods that show signs of spoilage such as being swollen, dented or rusted should be thrown away or not accepted. 

Canned high acid foods such as tomatoes and fruits keep their best quality for 12-18 months. Canned meats and vegetables or low-acid foods will keep their quality for two to five years. A food bank or food pantry should use the information to determine how long after the "best if used by" quality phrase, the donated food is distributed. It would be important for food banks or food pantries to educate its customers about the date marking terms so the donated food is not wasted.

For more information on ways to make your pantry services safer, visit Michigan State University Extension’s For Food Pantries website.

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