Legal Matters: What do sell-by dates really mean?

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My lone consumer battle began when I found a few dairy products on the shelves of a local chain supermarket that had passed the sell-by date.

Two months ago, most of the low-fat individual yogurt cups of one brand on the shelf had passed the sell-by date, some by a few days, others by up to a week. The store employee I showed the outdated containers said the yogurt would be removed. More recently, in the same store, several cartons of 1 percent milk were four days past the sell-by date.

So, what does the sell-by date mean legally?

Is the supermarket violating any laws by not taking products off its shelves after the sell by date? Maryland law requires Grade A milk products to carry a sell-by date, which the law defines as "the last date on which the product may be sold." The supermarket could be in violation, but the law does not establish any penalty for selling milk products after the sell-by date.

It is legal to sell food past its sell-by date in much of the U.S. Legal actions have been filed against retailers that sell food after expiration dates in states that have laws prohibiting the practice. The CVS drugstore chain was accused of selling expired infant formula, milk, eggs and yogurt in lawsuits filed by the attorneys general of Connecticut and New York. Rite-Aid drugstore chain settled a lawsuit filed by the New Jersey attorney general that accused the chain of selling expired infant formula and baby food.

The terminology can be confusing. Several terms relate to food sale dates:

"Sell by" is basically a guide to quality. The sell-by date is the last day the item is at top quality, but it will still be edible for some time after. Experts say taste and color of non-perishable foods may degrade after the sell-by date, but the foods are not necessarily dangerous. "Best by" or "best before" is also a guide to quality.

"Use by" is the last date the product can be used and still be of good quality.

"Expires on" or "expiration" means there is a possible health risk in eating the food after that date.

Except for infant formula and some baby foods, federal law does not require packaged foods to be labeled with "use by" dates. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates poultry and meat, requires only that the label show the date meat or chicken was packaged.

Federal law requires foods in interstate commerce to be "wholesome and fit for consumption," according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. If a manufacturer puts a sell-by date on a product, and you get sick from eating it, the manufacturer may be liable for selling an unwholesome product, regardless of the date.

What about dates on egg cartons? If the cartons have the USDA grade shield, the date the eggs were packed must appear on the carton. If the egg producer decides to put a sell-by date on a carton with the USDA grade shield, the date cannot be more than 45 days after the eggs were packed.