Food Expiration Dates Frequently Asked Questions


Food Dating FAQ's

Does fish expire when refrigerated?

Fish is very perishable. It is best to use or freeze fish the day you purchase it. If you purchase fresh fish cello-wrapped from a grocery store, freeze or use it within 2 days of the sell-by date. Fish should not have an overly "fishy" smell. It it has a strong odor don't eat it.

How long does cheese expire after opening?

Different types of cheese are usable for longer periods of times than other. Fresh cheeses such as cream cheese, queso fresco, fromage blanc are typically OK up to about 2 weeks after the sell by date. Medium or hard cheeses such as Swiss, cheddar, blue cheeses really are fine up to 3-6 months. If the cheese starts to get moldy you can cut away the mold about 1/8" deep and the remaining cheese is fine to eat. In the case of blue cheeses make sure it doesn't have an "ammonia smell" which is a sign the cheese is beyond it's edible stage. See Food Storage Guidelines for more information on storage times for dairy products.

What are dairy products sell by dates law united states?

The US has not legislated any sell-by dates for dairy products in the U.S. The government does state that if you stamp or print a date on a can or package you must include a phrase to describe the date such as: "Best by" or "Use By". Read the USDA fact sheet on food product dating.

What Are Food expiration dates?

The term "food expiration dates" has become a generic term describing any date shown on a food product label. While some food products do show "expiration dates" many products only show a sell by, best by or use by date. Most of these dates are not related to food safety but in fact created to let consumers know when the product has reached its peak quality. Most foods are safe and usable beyond those dates. Read complete article on food expiration dates including a chart with times foods can be used past their printed dates.

How long after sell by date can you use poultry?

Poultry should be cooked or frozen within 2 days after the sell-by date on the package. The product should not have any "off" odors. It it does it should be disposed of.

When do you throw away canned goods from grocery store?

Some, but not all canned goods have "best by" dates printed on the can but most can be stored beyond that date. Rotate your canned goods so that you eat the oldest first within a target date of 1 year. Here are some additional more specific guidelines from the USDA: Store canned foods in a cool, dry place. Low acid foods such as such as meat and vegetables can be store for up to 2 to 5 years. High acid foods can be kept for up to 18 months.
CAUTION: NEVER eat or even taste foods from a can which has rust, leaks, cracks, bulges or has any foul odor. If the contents "spurt" out when the can is opened, dispose of it. Don't use food from badly-dented cans (small dents are not a problem). These could be signs of botulism and it can be deadly.

How long after the expiration date can you eat something?

It really depends on the type of date and the product. See our use by chart on this page.

What is the expiration of date powder sugar?

Dry goods such as sugar, salt, flour (except flour with high fat content) really don't have any expiration dates and in fact they are rarely dated at all. All of these products remain wholesome for several years if stored in a cool dry location.

Can you use baking powder or baking soda after the expiration date?

Dry leavening agents (baking powder, baking soda) will probably be marked with a "best used" date and if stored tightly sealed they most likely usable beyond that date. Typically they last 6 months to a year but you can test the potency of baking powder or baking soda; here is how:

Test baking soda: mix 1/4 teaspoon baking soda with 2 teaspoons of vinegar and the mixture should bubble immediately; if not, replace it.

Test baking powder: mix 1 teaspoon baking powder with 1/2 cup hot water and the mixture should bubble immediately; if not, replace it

Can food coloring expire?

Food coloring does not expire nor does it tend to lose its coloring power. Make sure it remains well-sealed to prevent contamination from dust.

What does is the sell by date I see on food packages?

This date is provided by the manufacturer. Although it is not legislated (except for a few items) this is the date by which the seller should sell the product. This does not mean the food is unsafe to eat after this date. Read complete article on food expiration dates including a chart with times foods can be used past their printed dates.

How long can you keep butter after sell by date?

Keep butter refrigerated 2 weeks to 2 months after the sell by date. But for storage more than a couple of weeks you should freeze butter. Butter freezes very well make sure to package in a freezer bag or container.

Does flour have an expiration date?

There are no legislated expiration dates for flour in fact dry goods like flour, sugar and even pasta rarely have more than an encoded date. In the case of most flours there is nothing to spoil so it does not "expire". The exception being the higher the fat content the shorter the shelf life. An example is whole wheat flour. If you are not going to use whole wheat flour within a couple months from purchase then you should store it refrigerated in a tightly sealed container.

> How Long Is Milk Good After The Sell By Date

According to the Dairy Council of California - "The shelf life of milk is affected by several factors including how it is handled before and after it is purchased. When stored at 40 degrees Fahrenheit and not left out of the refrigerator for extended time periods, milk should last approximately 5-7 days past the "sell by" date."

Does Canned Soda Expire?

Technically, no. There is not much to go "bad" with ingredients like water, sugar and caramel coloring. Treat soft drinks like any other canned goods. Store in a cool, dry place. If you stockpile soda, then rotate your stock yearly given the documented shelf life is about 1 year properly stored. The product is unlikely to become harmful past a year but flavor may begin to degrade. If you find soft drinks over a year old you can open one and taste it and use if it tastes OK. Soft drink manufactures do use additives to prohibit bacterial growth.

NOTE: Soft drinks in glass or plastic bottles should not be stored in sunlight. Sunlight can cause chemical reactions with the soft drink contents. While probably not life threatening it's best to avoid the problem by storing bottled soft drinks in a dark location.

History Of Food Expiration Dating 

The concept of food labeling as we know it today didn't really begin until the 1930's. Here are some important dates.

Pure Food and Drug Act - This act didn't legislate what was to be labeled per se but did set for that the product be labeled "correctly".

The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act replaces the 1906 Food and Drugs Act. Among other things, it requires the label of every processed, packaged food to contain the name of the food, its net weight, and the name and address of the manufacturer or distributor. A list of ingredients also is required on certain products. The law also prohibits statements in food labeling that are false or misleading.

First Food Standards issued (canned tomatoes, tomato purée, and tomato paste).

The Oleomargarine Act requires prominent labeling of colored oleomargarine to distinguish it from butter.

The Poultry Products Inspection Act authorizes USDA to regulate, among other things, the labeling of poultry products.

FDA issues regulations requiring nutrition labeling on food containing one or more added nutrients or whose label or advertising includes claims about the food's nutritional properties or its usefulness in the daily diet. Nutrition labeling is voluntary for almost all other foods.

Voluntary nutrition labeling, postponed from its originally planned 1974 date, goes into effect.

Infant Formula Act establishes special FDA controls to ensure necessary nutrition.

Nutrition Labeling and Education Act requires all packaged foods to bear nutrition labeling and all health claims for foods to be consistent with terms defined by the Secretary of Health and Human Services. The law preempts state requirements about food standards, nutrition labeling, and health claims and, for the first time, authorizes some health claims for foods. The food ingredient panel, serving sizes.

Food Quality and Protection Act - Some of the major requirements include stricter safety standards, especially for infants and children, and a complete reassessment of all existing pesticide tolerances. This web site provides background information on FQPA's provisions and discusses some of the specific issues raised by FQPA, as well as the law's implementation status.

Read More About Food Labeling

How Long To Keep It - GourmetSleuth, Labeling laws, learn about food dating, how long to keep foods and what do food expiration dates mean.

FDA Milestones in Food Labeling- complete list of dates and laws relating to the history of food labeling in the U.S.

Food Storage Guidelines - A comprehensive guide (charts) that show food storage guidelines.

California Expiration Date Laws

California's Milk Expiration Date Law
From the CDFA

"All milk containers offered for sale by a retail store must have a clearly marked "sell by" date. This date is established by the milk processor and is the date upon which, in order to ensure quality, the milk will be removed from the shelf or dairy case. This date also lets the consumer know how long the purchased milk stored in their refrigerator will be fresh. Milk purchased is guaranteed to be fresh up to and including that date providing the milk has been stored at the proper temperatures. Your milk will be fresher for a longer period of time if you look for the most recently packaged milk. Milk is a perishable product and when stored in cooler temperatures, will remain fresher for a longer period of time. If you suspect that your store does not keep its milk cold enough, ask the store manager at what temperature its dairy case is maintained. Stores are required to keep their dairy case 45° or lower."

How Long Is Milk Good After The Sell By Date
According to the Dairy Council of California - "The shelf life of milk is affected by several factors including how it is handled before and after it is purchased. When stored at 40 degrees Fahrenheit and not left out of the refrigerator for extended time periods, milk should last approximately 5-7 days past the "sell by" date."

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.