Taking the Mystery Out of Food Labels
Welcome to USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service Food Safety at home
podcast series. These podcasts were designed with you in mind - the consumer - who
purchases and prepares meat, poultry and processed egg products
for your family and friends.
Each episode will bring you a different food safety topic ranging from safe storage, handling,
and preparation of meat, poultry and processed egg products to the importance of keeping
foods safe during a power outage.
So sit back, turn up the volume and listen in.
Welcome to “Food Safety at Home.” This is Gertie Hurley with the Food Safety and
Inspection Service. I’m your host for this segment. With me today is Diane Van, Manager
of the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline. We’re going to talk with Diane today about food
labels and exactly what they mean for food safety in the home.
It’s good to see you, Diane.
Yes, it’s good seeing you, too.
When shopping, most of us know that food labels list the amounts of macronutrients
(fat, protein and carbohydrate including fiber) and the vitamin and mineral content of
the product. This provides good information to help us determine whether a particular
food product meets our nutritional needs.
However, it can get quite confusing when it comes to labels on meat and poultry products.
If chicken is labeled “fresh,” how can it be so rock hard? Does “organic” mean “raised
without hormones”? Or what does the “sell by” date mean? And what does the “best if sell
by” date mean, Diane?
Gertie, the “sell by” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale to the consumer. The
date indicates that you should buy the product before that date. For instance, a chicken
sampler pack has a “sell by” date of November 3, 2008. You should check the date and buy
the product for quality purposes before that date. Most manufacturers recommend that you
not use the product after its “sell by” date. However, the “sell by” date is not a safety
Diane, I have also seen products marked with a
“best if used by” date? That doesn’t sound quite the same.
The “best if used by” – or before – date is the last date recommended for the use of the
product while at peak quality. The date is determined by the manufacturer of the product.
For instance, if the “best if used by” date says “best if used by 10 NOV 08,” the manufacturer
has set November 10, 2008, as the last day recommended to use the product for the best
flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
What are “closed” or “coded” dates?
Closed or coded dates are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer. If a product is
not dated, you may consume that perishable ready-to-eat food soon after the purchase but
no more than 3 to 5 days after opening it.
“Organic” is a term I often see on packages in the grocery store. When I see that, what does it tell me
about a product?
Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics
or growth hormones. To be labeled “organic,” a Government-approved certifier must inspect
the farm where the food is grown to make sure all the rules necessary to comply with USDA
organic standards are met. The Agricultural Marketing Service at USDA is responsible for
how the term is used. For more information on organic products, visit
www.ams.usda.gov/nop. That’s www.ams.usda.gov/nop.
I’ve also noticed that packages of meat and poultry products often have a label about
safe handling instructions. What does that label tell us?
The safe handling instructions are guidelines on raw meat and poultry that provide specific
information for the handling and preparation of a particular food. Following the safe
handling instructions is important for all of us. It is especially important for the very
young, older adults, pregnant women and their unborn, and those with weakened or compromised
immune systems due to illness and/or medication.
Will the label also tell us whether a food is ready to eat or not?
Yes. However, you must check labels carefully. Remember, unless a product is labeled
as “fully cooked,” the food should be handled and prepared no differently than raw products.
Some products may appear to be pre-cooked or browned, but they are raw and not ready to
How can a person learn more about food labeling?
Consumers can visit the FSIS Web site at www.fsis.usda.gov.
That's www.fsis.usda.gov. Consumers can also get answers to food safety questions online
from our virtual representative “Ask Karen” at www.askkaren.gov
or call our toll-free USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline. That’s 1-888-674-6854.
That's it for this week. We’ve been talking to Diane Van from the USDA Meat and Poultry
Hotline. Thank you so much, Diane, for helping us to take some of the mystery out of food
labels. I’m Gertie Hurley and I’d like to thank you for joining us for this episode of
“Food Safety at Home.” And remember, “Be Food Safe.”
Well, that’s all for this time. Thanks for joining us today for another episode of
food safety at home!
For answers to your food safety questions call USDA's toll-free meat and poultry hotline
at 1-888-mphotline. That’s 1-888-674-6854.
You can also get answers to food safety questions online from our virtual representative
"ask karen" at www.askkaren.gov .
Let us know what you think of this podcast by sending your comments to
Thanks for tuning in.
Last Modified: October 14, 2008