A Guide to Food Safety & Food Product Dating

Food safety is crucial to the success of any bar or restaurant. Having a reputation for poor food safety is a surefire way to bring a restaurant to its knees. And restaurants aren’t the only ones hurt by poor food safety. Each year, foodborne illnesses sicken 48 million Americans and cause over 120,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. 

An easy way to reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses and improve food safety in your bar or restaurant is to understand food product dating and the benefits of a food rotation system. Gaining insight into how long a food product is safe for, and how your restaurant uses products can improve your safety while reducing waste. 

What is Food Product Dating?

Food product dating refers to the dates found on packaging. Although the location of the date and the duration of time a food is safe to consume may vary, the date’s purpose generally remains the same for all products: informing the consumer or preparer about when the food will be at its best quality.

There are two main types of food product dating labels: those applied by manufacturers and those applied by a preparer in a restaurant.

How Manufacturers Date Food Products

Manufacturers apply date labels to food products for various reasons based on a number of factors. The characteristics of the food, the packaging, and the length of time the food is held during distribution all contribute to how the food product is dated.

Are Date Labels Required By Law?

With the exception of infant  formula, there aren’t any federal regulations requiring manufacturers to apply food date labeling to their products. State laws vary, but are similarly sparse.

However, most manufacturers include a date regardless of regulations, although those dates usually aren’t representative of when a food is safe to consume. Rather, food manufacturers include dates related to freshness or quality because they want consumers to be impressed by their products, and that’s increasingly less likely to happen beyond a food’s prime.

Some states, such as Wisconsin, may require a ‘sell by’ date to be applied to certain food products like smoked fish and eggs, but again, that doesn’t signify some moment when the food suddenly becomes unfit for consumption. This can lead to a point of confusion: what do ‘sell by,’ ‘best by,’ and other phrases really mean?

What do ‘Best By’ and ‘Sell By’ Labels Mean?

Many of the phrases you see surrounding dates on food products relate to quality, not safety.

  • Use-by and best-by dates are both indications of how long the food will be at its highest quality.
  • Sell-by dates similarly aren’t representative of safety, but instead inform stores when they should stop displaying an item and dispose of it, as its quality may be compromised beyond that date. 

Even after these dates pass, food products are often safe to eat, according to the Food and Safety Inspection Service of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Foods are typically safe to eat until they’re evidently spoiled.

Keep in mind that despite foods typically being safe after their printed date, they may not be of the highest quality anymore. This is important for many bars and restaurants which seek to provide high-quality products and might discard food when its quality begins to drop regardless of whether it’s still safe to consume.

Food Labels in Your Restaurant

The second common type of food label is the one you apply in your restaurant. Food rotation labels are an easy way to maintain safety and quality standards in your bar or restaurant. Following a consistent labeling procedure can help you and your staff quickly identify food and prevent foodborne illnesses.

What Information to Include on a Food Rotation Label

Each rotation label should always include the following three pieces of information:

  1. What the item being stored is
  2. The date it was prepared or added to storage
  3. The date the food item should be used or disposed of by

By doing so, your kitchen will see numerous benefits across a number of key areas.

Three Benefits of a Food Rotation System

  1. Food rotation labels simplify the organization of your stock and inventory
  2. By removing doubt, food rotation labels help your kitchen reduce food waste and the costs associated with that waste
  3. Food rotation labels can prevent cross-contamination and foodborne illnesses

Despite dates and labels, sometimes it can be difficult to tell when food has gone bad. To be certain you’re maintaining food safety standards, be sure to do the following:

  • Dispose of food left at room temperature for over two hours, or one hour if it’s warmer than 90ºF.
  • Store food in shallow containers in walk-in coolers.
  • Use cooked food products within four days of their preparation.

Overall, if you’re in doubt, throw it out. Additionally, while food dating is important for any restaurant, it’s not the only thing that impacts food safety. One of the best ways to ensure that your food products are safe to consume is to follow best practices for food handling in your kitchen.

Disposing of Foods Without Waste

If your restaurant is disposing of food products that have surpassed the manufacturer’s printed date, there are ways to dispose of them without the food going to waste. According to the USDA, about 30%-40% of all food products in the U.S. are wasted each year. But restaurants can often donate their unwanted food goods to local charities or food banks.

Not only does the donation help charitable organizations, this meaningful kind of social responsibility can bolster your bar or restaurant’s public image and endear you to your community. It’s a win-win situation.

Society Insurance Protects Bars and Restaurants

Understanding food product dating is a huge help to both your restaurant’s food safety procedures and your bottom line. By understanding what manufacturers’ labels mean and implementing your own labeling system, you can ensure your guests always have an exceptional, safe dining experience. For more tips and to learn how Society Insurance can help protect your food service operation, contact your local Society Insurance Agent today.


As a mutual insurance company, we operate and exist for the benefit of our policyholders. For more than 100 years, Society has been helping businesses overcome the unexpected with comprehensive coverage packages and outstanding claims handling, underwriting and risk management.

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