A Guide to Expiration Dates

Updated: Dec 9, 2021

Almost all packaged food comes with a date that is meant to tell you when the food goes bad. However, what is the difference between all the terminology? Best if used-by, sell-by, fresh-by, etc. What does it all mean?


You may be surprised to learn that putting dates on food is actually not required by law but up to the manufacturers, with the exception of baby food, formula, and meat and dairy products in certain states.


Furthermore, there is no regulation on expiration, sell-by, or use-by dates. This is also completely up to the manufacturer, and often the dates are only an indicator of freshness, not an indicator that the food has become unsafe to eat. Companies want their food to be eaten when it’s at its best and most fresh, and that is what the dates encourage people to do. The downside of this is that a lot of perfectly good food gets thrown away, simply because it’s past the date the manufacturer decided.


Here is a guide that will hopefully help you better understand these dates and how to interpret them, as well as prevent food waste.


Use-by dates


Best if used-by is more of a suggestion. The date indicates the last date the food is at its best quality. There is no standardization for these dates and food can be safe to eat past the date, although the texture, flavor, and appearance may deteriorate. Use your best judgement to determine if food is safe to eat beyond its use-by date. For example, it smells bad or doesn’t taste the way it’s supposed to, that’s a pretty good indicator that the food has gone bad.


Sell-by dates


The sell-by date indicates how long a food should be stored on a grocery store shelf. This means that items past the sell-by date are generally safe to eat, but it is best not to buy items that are already past their sell-by date in the grocery store.


Expiration dates


Expiration dates tend to be more hard-and-fast then sell-by or used-by because they are typically on very perishable items such as meat and dairy products. That being said, the manufacturer may have simply used the phrase “expiration” over sell-by or used-by.


Tips


Make sure you are storing all your food properly so it can last as long as possible. You may find it helpful to write the date you purchased the item on the packaging of the item itself, so you know how long you’ve had it. You can freeze any type of food if you're not sure when you'll eat it. Frozen food does not go bad.


According the USDA, canned foods are good indefinitely as long as they are stored correctly and the can itself is not damaged. However, their taste and texture will deteriorate and they may loose their nutritional value after extended periods of time. Store canned goods in a cool, dark place at 65 degrees Fahrenheit and try to eat them within a year. Some products should be eaten sooner: “Citrus fruits, fruit juices, pickles, peppers, sauerkraut, green beans, asparagus, beets, and all tomato products should be used within six months.”


Once you open any sort of packaged food, eat it as soon as possible because it will go bad quicker.


The main takeaway is to always trust your instinct. If the food looks and tastes fine past its expiration date, it is safe to eat. If the food looks or smells bad, throw it away or compost it if possible.


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