image credit: Nataliia Natykach
What Do Food Expiration Dates Mean? A common sense guide to food product dating
Article by: Barbara Bowman
Current State Of Affairs
People throw out a lot of good food because they simply don't understand those
dates," says Mary Wenberg, a registered dietitian and food safety specialist.
She has worked the meat and poultry hotline for the United States Department of
Agriculture for 11 years. She fields questions from the public about what
expiration dates mean almost
As food prices continue to soar and
conservation is today's "cause celeb" we think it's important to learn more
about the dates on printed on food products. You need to educate yourself so
you don't throw away perfectly good foods while keeping you and your family
healthy and safe. So remember, just because a package has a date on it; it does
not mean you have to charge off to the trash can and throw out the
As a side note, the U.S. throws out more edible food than any
country in the world. While this may be good for the corporate bottom-line, it
does not bode well for world conservation or your home pocket book.
| | A new study revealed that almost half the food
in the country (U.S.) goes to waste. FoodNavigator-usa.com
reports that "Timothy Jones, an anthropologist at the UA Bureau of Applied
Research in Anthropology, has spent the last 10 years measuring food loss,
including the last eight under a grant from the US department of agriculture
(USDA)." Mr Jones learned in his study that this food loss came from edible
food that is discarded daily as well as waste during the production and retail
He goes on to say that his study showed that consumers in the
U.S. throw out about 14% of all foods purchased and of that 15% of that food is
still within "expiration dates". The study stresses the need for consumers to
learn how to refrigerate, freeze and store foods for later use rather than
allowing the food to discarding because of
Most Dates Are Voluntary
With exception of certain poultry, baby food products and formulas most all other food product expiration dates are not required by federal law but are voluntarily provided by food manufacturers. This does vary from state to state and many states legislate sell-by dates for perishable foods. According to several sources including the USDA there are 20 states that require some mandatory labeling for dairy products. So far we know that Arizona, California, Ohio, and New York have some labeling laws. (Read about California's milk labeling law
)Dates Are Guidelines
On the most part dates are provided as guidelines for both product sellers and the buying public. Most dates are NOT expiration dates; you are not going to get sick because you eat something past its "best by" date. Some dates have become marketing devices for product manufactures. A good example of this are dates that are appearing on soft drinks. There really is not much to expire with a beverage made of water, sugar, and artificial coloring. This is one of those cases where the manufacturer appears to just be encouraging you to throw it out and buy more.
So, Can I Eat Food Past The Expiration Date?
You can certainly eat most foods beyond any "convenience date". If the date is explicitly an "expiration date" then proceed with caution. For an example, a steak a few days past a sell by date is probably not going to hurt you. A box of crackers 2 months past a best by or use by date are typically just fine. Smell the food, does it smell OK? If it smells spoiled or rancid, toss it out.
There is one area I don't mess around and that is with high acid canned goods. If I'm not sure, I throw it out. See the chart to the right showing "how long to keep it". Again this is a guideline, many foods may be fine beyond the guidelines.
This is a case where common sense must prevail. Here are some general guidelines:
Perishable Meats, Fish, Seafood - pay attention to sell by dates. For best quality it is best to buy those products before the sell by date particularly with meats, poultry and seafood. That being said, many of these products are still edible for several days after that date. See the chart.
Dairy products - Liquids such as milk and cream are more perishable than solid products like sour cream, yogurt and cheese. See our "how long to keep" list for more specifics.
Canned Goods - because the dating conventions on most canned goods are "obscured" I use a basic rule of thumb to rotate out my canned good stock within 1 year. Exceptions: if the top looks "bulged" or darkened or rusty I toss it out. Many canned goods are fine past one year but start to pick up a "canned" taste and quality does degrade.
Dry Goods- Flour, sugar, salt, etc. These products do not expire and even the quality is not severely impacted with age. Exception: if the product has a high oil content it can go rancid (like rice). Just give it a sniff. It if smells rancid, toss it. Also products like baking powder lose their potency so keep this rotated approximately every 6 months.
Feeding Elderly, Infants, Small Children, and People With Compromised Immune Systems- Error on the side of caution when preparing food for people in these categories. Abide strickly by expiration and use by dates.
- US Food Labeling guidelines fact sheetSFGate
- The Dating Game, Freshness labels are a manufacturers' free-for-all.Cupboard Storage
- From the Ohio State UniversityFDA Ingredient Labeling
- What's in a food? Article describes in laymen terms the how and why of food labeling in the U.S.Frequently Asked Questions
- Also see our list of frequent asked questions (FAQ's) related to food product expiration dates. Includes an overview of the history of U.S. food labeling laws.Food Storage Guidelines
- view our comprehensive list of food storage times.
Expiration Date Guideline Chart
|Date Type ||Description ||Guidelines ||Affects
|Quality Affected but
|Sell By ||Usually used for fresh / perishable foods.
This is the date by which the grocery store must sell the product or remove it
from the shelves. The product can still be eaten for days or weeks past this
date (depending on the product). This date does NOT mean the product is unsafe
to eat at that date. ||The sell-by date reflects the "peak freshness" of
the product. Avoid buying after this date. Sometimes meat are sold 1/2 price
the day after the "sell by date" and most are fine for a couple days, see
chart. ||No ||Yes|
|Best Used or |
|A rather arbitrary date to indicate when
the product is at its very best. Stores may continue to sell the product beyond
this ate. ||The product is at it's best when used by this
date but you can continue to use the product past the date. ||No ||Yes|
|Use By ||Very similar to the best used or best buy
dates. This date is provided by the manufacture to indicate the food should be
used by this date for best quality. ||The last date the producer will accept
responsibility for freshness. ||No ||Yes|
|Guaranteed Fresh ||Normally refers to baked /bakery
goods ||Peak freshness date. ||No ||Yes|
|Pack Date ||These dates are typically encoded and for
the reference of the manufacturer. This date allows the producer the ability to
track when a food was packed. This is frequently seen on canned
goods ||The date the product was packed/canned. It is not
an expiration date. Refer to "how long to keep" chart. ||No ||Yes|
|Expiration date ||This type of date is usually on fresh
foods like meats and some dairy products. The product should be consumed by
this date. Exception: eggs, are good for up to 5 weeks after that
date. ||The date by which the food should be used. In
some cases the food can still be be consumed. Don't take chances if feeding
small children or anyone with a compromised immune system. ||Yes ||Be cautious|