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Is it fresh? Phil’s guide to sell-by dates

Confused by those so-called "freshness dates" on supermarket food items? Phil Lempert has a quick 101 on what to watch out for.

Q: When I’m in the supermarket I’m always careful to check sell-by dates. Sometimes they talk about the day the product should be sold by; sometimes it’s the date when it was packed. Can you tell me what I should be looking for and how long I can keep a product after the sell-by date? Thank you! —Jessica, Maryland

A: Thanks for your question, Jessica. Yes, the jumble of so-called freshness codes, sell-by dates and packed-by dates can be confusing. The unfortunate truth is that there are not yet any industry standards or government regulations to ease our confusion when looking at food packages.

That’s the bad news. The good is that because shoppers are increasingly concerned with this issue — more than 5,000 shoppers we surveyed for our 2004 Consumer Panel Trend Report thought it was more important than buying fat-reduced or low-carb foods — manufacturers seem to be making it easier to decipher their freshness codes.

"Freshness coding" that we can read (in English) on packages is a relatively recent phenomenon. Although there are no standards, the codes must be readable and easy to understand. When a milk carton has a date under the words "sell by," for example, it means exactly that: The milk or cheese or whatever should be sold by this date (and shouldn't be bought after it). That doesn't mean the product is spoiled; it's just past its prime.

How much time you should allow before consuming, or discarding, the product depends on what it is and how it's packaged. If you're in doubt, call the toll-free consumer hot-line number listed on most packages.

Milk Milk distributors have led the way in establishing both the perceived image and importance of freshness. A scene in the hit movie "Clerks," which chronicled the adventures of a convenience-store employee, illustrates the trend:

A woman obsessed with finding the freshest carton of milk removes every carton from the cooler to reach the one furthest in the back, placing the others on the floor. Finally satisfied that she has found the ultimate date code, she leaves the store with the remaining cartons still on the floor.

The clerks call this type of shopper a "milk maid."

Well, you can call me a "milk man." I happen to be one of those consumers who searches way in the back for the milk marked with the latest date. And for two good reasons: I want to get the freshest milk possible, plus I know that the milk in the back of the case is the coldest!

The difference between me and the "milk maid": I never leave the shelves a mess!

Searching for the most up-to-minute date is important. All states require "sell by" dates on milk, but there is no consistent requirement of how many days before the product spoils.

The factor that most affects shelf life (of all products, not just milk) is of course temperature. Milk should be stored, both in the grocery and at home, between 40 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Dairies often "short date" milk by seven to 10 days to ensure that they meet state regulations and that we drink the milk at its peak. That means the actual "drink by" date can be about a week later than the date stamped on the container. You should, however, trust your instincts and — most important — your nose.

What about other products?Recently, soft drink and beer manufacturers started what I suspect will be a major trend — advertising branding freshness.

Freshness? Of Pepsi? Of Budweiser? Yes!

It’s a good strategy. Every beer drinker has encountered at least one “skunky” brew, and every soda fan has faced a flat or foul-tasting bottle of pop.

Let's look at why we need to look at the expiration date on a Diet Pepsi. When stored correctly (refrigerated or at room temperature), it will stay at its peak for only about 100 days. This is because its primary artificial sweetener, Nutrasweet, loses its effectiveness over time. If you store Diet Pepsi in a warm area, it will lose sweetness faster.

Temperature is key Just as for milk, temperature remains one of the most critical ways to maintain freshness. We can control storage at home, but what about before food gets to us?

That, of course, is outside our control. We have to trust that manufacturers and retailers — and government agencies — will ensure that product temperatures in shipping and storage are at the proper levels.

But there are things you can do: If you see ice cream that's soft in the freezer case, or milk that's not cold, don't buy it. It may already be spoiled, and it probably won't last as long. The same rule pertains to all fresh products.

So, be a "milk maid" if you must — a tidy one, please — and be proud of it! It is our right as a consumer to make sure our foods are fresh when we buy them; and it's the store's responsibility to insure that their stock is properly rotated. If for whatever reason you missed the expiration date on a product and realized it was past its peak when you got home and started unpacking your groceries, keep the receipt and bring the product back to the store for a replacement.

Food safety is a critical and important issue for you and your family's well-being.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent