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Date Marketing Ready-to-Eat Refrigerated Foods From Licensed Kitchens

Written by Joan Hegerfeld-Baker (former SDSU Extension Food Safety Specialist).

Licensed foodservice establishments commonly prepare foods to be marketed as a packaged food item. Product dating for ready-to-eat (RTE), temperature controlled for safety foods must be marketed or consumed within a certain amount of time for safety. If a food is potentially hazardous and is held for at least 24 hours it must be labeled with a specific date for consumption or discarded. Examples of refrigerated RTE foods marketed through licensed kitchens are fresh salsa, fresh sliced deli meats, custard based desserts, salads, leftovers and others.

Date Labeling Considerations

What are the dates based on?

The dates on food labels are based on quality and safety. Two pathogenic microorganisms of concern are Listeria monocyotgenes and Yersinia entercolitica. These two pathogens are psychrotrophic since they can grow slowly at refrigeration temperatures. Therefore, dating foods for consumption is based on the potential for pathogens of concern to grow to dangerous levels. Maintaining refrigeration temperatures is critical. The food in cold storage must be 41°F or lower. Therefore, cooling units are often set to maintain an air temperature of 36°F to 38°F. As the temperature decreases, the growth rate of psychrotrophs also decreases.

How soon must foods be consumed?

Foods made in a licensed kitchen must be consumed (or discarded) within seven days of preparation. This is the day prepared or opened plus six days. The “sell-by” or “use before” date on a RTE food container for safety cannot go beyond the seventh day. If potato salad was made with potatoes cooked on April 1st, the potato salad prepared on April 2nd, and placed into containers for sale in a self-service case on April 3rd, the package label must be dated no later than “Sell-by April 7th” (or Use-before).

Dating a food “Sell-by” on the seventh day is the maximum number of days for safety. Consider that some foods may not be consumed when purchased. When date marking these types of food products, “use before” would be the preferred terminology.

What about quality and texture?

Dating RTE foods for quality is dependent upon the sensory attributes of the food. Texture, flavor and appearance are most often evaluated to identify best-date for quality. A systematic approach to evaluating sensory attributes that provides an unbiased result is important to identifying a date that addresses quality as well as safety. For example, the “sell-by” date on a container of prepared pudding in the self-serve refrigerator case may very well be on the date it was made, cut, packaged and sold. The sensory analysis plan is dependent upon the type of food product.

Can any foods be kept longer?

Not all RTE foods that are potentially hazards need to have a sell-by date within seven days. Foods made and packaged in an inspected processing plant such as dairy products, sausages, deli salads and sandwiches in a modified atmospheric package. The seven-day “sell-by” rule is primarily for RTE foods that must be refrigerated and made in a licensed kitchen.


  • South Dakota Department of Health, South Dakota Food Service Code.
  • FSIS USDA. Food Product Dating.

Related Topics

Food Safety, Fruit, Vegetable