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What Do Food Expiration Dates Mean?

A common sense guide to food product dating

Article by: Barbara Bowman

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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 daily"

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 food.

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. 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 process. 

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 spoilage.

About The Law

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.

Let Common Sense Prevail

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.

More Resources

USDA - US Food Labeling guidelines fact sheet

SFGate - The Dating Game, Freshness labels are a manufacturers' free-for-all.

Cupboard Storage - From the Ohio State University

FDA 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 Food
Quality Affected but Edible
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

Best Buy

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

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I read in the news that packaged mixes that have rising products are dangerous when used after the expiration date. A child almost died from panckes made from an expired mix.  I do not see any of these in your chart.  What about cake, muffins and brownie mixes?

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I have been using cake mixes up to 12 months after the use by or expiration date for many years. Instead of making a cake I make cookies using the cake, brownie or muffin mix. Just do an online search for cake mix cookies and have fun.

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How Long To Keep It