Food Expiration Dates

best buy date on can lid

Update On Food Expiration Labeling February 2017

There is a very promising update on the chaos that is our current labeling system.  The Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association have band together to promote a new, simplified food expiration date labeling.

As a shopper I'm sure you are aware of the many different versions of the best by and use by expiration date terms.  In fact there are really two types of dating.  The first will be “USE By” which will tell you when it is no longer safe to use perishable foods and the other is “BEST IF USED" which is an informational date that tells you when the product will be at it's freshest (but continues to be edible).  The goal is to get product manufacturers and retailers to adopt the new labeling by 2018.

The movement is to clear up consumer confusion and reduce food waste caused by consumer uncertainty about the safety of the food past a certain date.  We need to stress that the program will be voluntary so there may not be 100% compliance by that date.  We'll update you when we get more updates.


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 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.

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- Err on the side of caution when preparing food for people in these categories. Abide strictly by expiration and use by dates.

Expiration Date Guideline Chart

Date Type Description Guidelines Affects Food Safety? 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

How Long To Keep It

Here are some guidelines for keeping foods.  There are many factors that determine usability including how the product was handled and stored before you purchased and after you purchased it. If you've left the groceries in a hot car for more than 30 minutes then storage times are reduced significantly for fresh foods.

These guidelines (for fresh foods) are based on foods stored in (32°to 40°) refrigeration.

Frequently Asked Questions - Also see our list of frequent asked questions (FAQ's) related to food product expiration dates.

If product has a "use-by" date, follow that date.

If product has a "sell-by" or no date, cook or freeze the product by the times on the following chart.

Product Cook or Freeze By
Beef 3-5 days after purchase
Butter 2 weeks to 2 months unopened
Cream & half and half 3-4 days from sell by date or snif it!
Eggs 3-5 weeks from carton date
Fish 1-2 days wrapped tightly and well chilled or iced.
Ground meat 2 days after purchase
Hard cheese 6 months unopened, 3-4 weeks opened, stored airtight. Its OK to cut away mold, it does not spoil the whole block of cheese
Hot dogs 7 days after sell by date
Luncheon meats 7 days after sell-by date
Milk 5-7 Days past the sell-by date. Don't use if it smells sour.
Pork 3-5 days after purchase
Poultry 1- 2 days loosely wrapped
Soft cheese 1 week unopened or 2 weeks for cream cheese.

View: Comprehesive food storage guidelines chart


Unopened, After Purchase

After Opening
Baked goods 2 - 7 days. Refrigerate or freeze for longer storage.
Baking powder Replace every 6 months to a year. To test it: mix 1 teaspoon baking powder with 1/2 cup hot water and the mixture should bubble immediately.
Baking soda Replace every 6 months to a year. To test: mix 1/4 teaspoon baking soda with 2 teaspoons of vinegar and the mixture should bubble immediately.
Canned goods - high acid 18 months 3-4 days
Canned goods - low acid 2-5 years 3-4 days
Canned meats, shelf stable 2 to 5 years/pantry 3-4 days
Flour Varies by variety. All-purpose flour, stored in cool, dry location can store indefinitely. Refrigerate whole wheat and higher-fat flours. See FAQs
Juices shelf-stable, bottled. Store for 12 to 18 3 - 5 days
Powdered seasonings 6 months to a year past "best by" date. . 1 month
Spoilage is unlikely but quality will degrade. If seasoning mixes add fats, watch for rancidity
Salt Does not "expire".
Sugar Never (unless it is exposed to moisture and becomes too difficult to use


whole eggs in carton

How To Test If An Egg Is Fresh

Fill a small bowl with water. Place the whole egg, shell and all, in the water.  If it sinks it is still edible.  If it float it means it is drying out inside, toss them out.

When Mold Matters

Typically mold on a food means it's time to throw it out.  The main exception here is mold on cheese.   Fresh cheeses (such as cream cheese) with mold should be thrown out.  But in the case of aged cheeses such as cheddar, Parmesan, brie, and so on you can simply trim away the mold. The rest of the cheese if perfectly good to eat.

More Resources

  • 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.

Barbara Bowman graduated with degree in Foods and Nutrition from San Jose State University. As CEO of she spends most waking hours writing, cooking, eating, gardening and traveling.