Food With Expiration Dates


Did you know that expiration dates on food are not regulated and have nothing to do with whether or not the food is safe to eat? Here’s a look at how the date labeling system works, and why it’s important to read those labels.

The truth behind expiration dates on food

Why you should know about “best before” dates

Expiration dates on food are basically just suggestions for when you should eat your food by. They’re based on a variety of factors, including how long it takes for food to go bad and what kind of packaging it came in. But there’s no regulation around these dates—and even if there were, they wouldn’t really tell you anything about whether or not something is safe to eat once passed its “expiration date.”

In fact, according to a study conducted by Harvard University, 90% of Americans throw away their food before they even get sick from it! So while the US government doesn’t require manufacturers to put any kind of label on their products, if they do decide to label their foods with an expiration date at all (which isn’t guaranteed), it’s up to them when exactly that date will be. The result is that most us aren’t aware of what those labels actually mean—if anything—which

Food With Expiration Dates


© Carolyn Lagattuta / Stocksy United

QUICK READFood date labels aren’t expiration dates

  • They actually indicate when a product has reached its peak quality or flavor.
  • Some foods may still be safe to eat after the use-by date.
  • It’s important to check for spoilage to determine if you should consume something.
  • Storing foods at the proper temperature and keeping track of shelf life can also help.

Use by. Sell by. Best if used by.

If these phrases sound familiar, it’s probably because you’ve seen them printed on practically everything at the grocery store, from cartons of milk to jars of pickles. Each comes paired with a handy-dandy expiration date letting you know just when you should polish off those pierogi or finish that block of cheese.

Here’s the rub: Those dates don’t mean what you think they do.

While you might be in the same basket as 42 percent of consumers who believe use-by dates indicate when a product is no longer safe to eat, that’s not actually the case.

“Sell-by dates and best-by dates are not about safety but rather about quality,” says Diane Javelli, R.D., a clinical dietitian at University of Washington Medical Center. “The manufacturer has put the date on there to suggest the recommended shelf life to get the best flavor, color or quality of the product. That’s based on their subjective opinion, not a specific safety standard.”

Yep, you read that right.The date labels on your groceries aren’t related to food safety at all.

In fact, the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t require safety dates on any food products except for infant formula. So that container of yogurt you forgot to open lurking in the back of your fridge may still be perfectly fine to eat after its best-by date.

There aren’t even uniform federal regulations or guidelines about food date labeling. Instead states determine their own rules, resulting in wildly varied laws depending on where you live.

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Some states, like Washington, require pull-date labeling on all perishable packaged food items. Others, like our neighbor Idaho, have no such regulations. And still other states, like New Hampshire, only require date labels on specific items like pre-wrapped sandwiches and cream products.

That’s great news for your BLT and all but, as you might imagine, this disparity leads to a whole lot of confusion and needless waste. Some folks, unsure if an item is still OK to consume past its best-by date, simply toss the food in question. Millennials in particular are more likely to mistakenly associate date labels with safety and to chuck an item that’s past its use-by date.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Americans waste about 30 to 40 percent of the U.S. food supply. That’s 39 million tons of food each year. What’s perhaps even more appalling to us compost pail-clutching Seattleites is that the Environmental Protection Agency estimates about 95 percent of that discarded food ends up in our landfills. Not cool.

So what can you do to cut down on how much food you waste? And how can you tell if your fruit has truly gone funky or if it’s still fine to eat? Let’s start by unwrapping the confusion around those food date labels.

Decoding food date labels

Since there’s no national standard about date labels and food safety, manufacturers use various phrases that mean the same or similar things. The next time you’re cleaning out your pantry, refer to this cheat sheet to help you decipher those labels.

  • Best by, use by or best if used by: These phrasesindicate the last date when an item will be at peak quality or flavor. The date is determined by the food manufacturer. Products may still be safe to eat after this date.
  • Sell by or pull by: This tells retailers the last date an item can be sold or displayed on shelves. Products may still be safe to consume after this date. Some states, including Washington, allow stores to sell or donate products that have reached this date but are not yet spoiled.
  • Packed on or closed on: This is when an item was packaged, sealed or canned. These dates are usually used to help retailers track stock and also pull items in case of a recall.

How to tell if your food has gone bad

Date labels aside, it’s still important to know whether or not your food is safe to eat, especially when it comes to perishable items like fresh produce, meat, eggs and dairy products.

So how do you know if that salmon fillet still gets two fins up? Well, for starters, pay attention to various cues that can help you identify if something is a little off, Javelli says.

“Look for visual signs of discoloration or mold. If the product gets mushy or really runny, if it smells bad, if the texture of fruit has become mushy or grainy, that’s probably a sign that it’s past its peak,” she explains. “For uncooked meat, if it becomes slimy or sticky, these are all signs, absolutely, that the product should not be used.”

Canned items, which can have a shelf life of anywhere from 2 to 5 years, shouldn’t have cracks, rust or a swollen appearance — all telltale signs that the food is no longer safe to consume.

Bread or other baked goods that sport spots of mold are not safe to eat, even if you tear off the parts with mold. Why not? There’s just no way of knowing how far those mold spores have spread, Javelli says.

And while the not-so-scientific sniff test can help you determine if your milk has soured, Javelli also notes that sometimes bacteria doesn’t create an obvious odor or visual change. In that case, it’s important to pay attention to the use-by date and how long the package has been opened or stored in your fridge.

Ways to keep your food safe

To keep that bacon from going bad in the first place — and to cut down on your compost contributions — you can also rely on a few preventive measures.

Always store your food at the proper temperature. Certain websites provide useful reference charts for how long to store your food and at what temperatures.

In general, refrigerators should be no warmer than 40 degrees Fahrenheit, while freezers should be kept at a chilly zero degrees. An inexpensive thermometer is an easy way to monitor this.

Keep containers covered in the refrigerator and always wipe up spills, especially from thawed meats, to help reduce the spread of bacteria. After your grocery store runs, put away perishable items as quickly as possible. The same applies to leftovers, which shouldn’t be left out for longer than two hours.

Javelli says these precautions are especially important for people who are immune compromised or have a medical condition that may make them more susceptible to foodborne illnesses.“Most of us on a day-to-day basis smell food and look at it and are fine,” she notes. “If you’re immune suppressed or compromised, taking that extra step to make sure your food is safe may prevent a serious illness.”

Another simple way to track not only your food’s freshness but also help prevent unnecessary waste is to practice the “first in, first out” method. When putting things away after a grocery run, move older items to the front of your fridge or pantry and put newer items in the back. That way, you’ll be more likely to include soon-to-expire items in your meal planning or cooking.

If organization is really your jam, there are also tools like the FoodKeeper app from the USDA’s Safety and Inspection Service that allow you to track the shelf life and freshness time frames for everything from tofu to barbecue sauce. You can even add items to your calendar and receive alerts on your phone when your sour cream is about to curdle.

It looks like those days of crying over spoiled milk have definitely expired.

how long after expiration date is food good

Target groceries grocery store
Kolleen Irwin and her daughter Ariel, 3, shop for groceries at a Target store in Philadelphia, Thursday, Oct. 15, 2009. 

The INSIDER Summary:

  • It’s hard to tell how long your food if good for once the expiration date has passed, plus each food is different. 
  • Dairy lasts one to two weeks, eggs last almost two weeks, and grains last a year after their sell-by. 

Reading between the lines of “Best By,” “Best if Sold By,” and “For Full Flavor Use By” can be hard to decipher. Each of these phrases have different implications and origins. Most of them are quality warnings, not safety warnings.

In fact, these dates and phrases have very little regulation. The USDA only requires food to be “labeled in a manner that is truthful and not misleading.” Depending on the state you live in, the regulations on dating, if there are any, can vary too. Considering that over 30% of food waste occurs after we purchase it, it’s worth considering this key question: how late past an expiration date can you eat the food?

Before I jump into specifics for foods, you should know how companies come up with the dates. Taking into account what they know with certainty, like how the food is packaged and how it was treated in packing, they must also guess to some degree at what temperature it will be transported, how long it might be unrefrigerated, and what temperature the consumer fridge will be.

Looking at all of the factors together, both known and unknown, companies take their best guess at when the food could possibly first spoil. Here are some general rules for the most common foods.

Dairy: 1-2 weeks

coca-cola fairlife milk
Containers of Coca-Cola’s new Fairlife milk are seen on a store shelf on Feb. 4, 2015 in Miami, Florida. 

Almost every state has different laws on milk dates. Milk produced and packaged in the exact same way could have an expiration date in one state that is two weeks later than another state. Because of the wide range of dating standards, it’s really up to you to judge the quality if your carton has passed the date.

If you keep your fridge closer to 34℉ (rather than the standard 40℉), you’re much more likely to get an extra week out of your milk. The longer you’ve kept the container sealed, the better. Other than those two tips, the good old smell test is your best bet.

Yogurt products may surprise you. Already tangy, it can sometimes be hard to call it with yogurts. Some foodies even like their yogurt expired (note the present tense here, they’re still alive, doing just fine). Maybe it’s the watery stuff on the top of yogurt that scares you; have no fear, it’s just the whey protein separating. The smell test is pretty reliable for yogurt, too.

With hard cheese, cut off any mold and just go for it. With soft cheese, be more skeptical and toss if you see any mold. The highly permeable texture of soft cheese allows mold to spread throughout more easily. 

Eggs: 2 weeks, but do the test

brown eggs

Fill a glass with water and gently place an egg in. If it floats, you’ve got a rotten egg on your hands, and if not, you’re good to go. Eggs often pass this test even two weeks after their date.

Grains: 1 year

Bulk oats grains beans dispensers at Whole Foods

With unopened processed foods like cereal and chips, you can get away with eating them months after the expiration date. If you have stale cereal on your hands, there are plenty of creative ways to put it to use, from making bread crumbs to pie crust.

Greens: take it leaf by leaf


Be careful with salad greens. Whether it’s moisture from the produce misters or from the leaves themselves, water feeds bacteria growth. No matter whether it’s before or after the date, toss any slimy greens. If there are still intact ones in the bag or box, hang onto those.

Meat: don’t risk it unless you’re sure


Confession: your girl is a long-time vegetarian and can’t give much firsthand advice. Thankfully, the USDA has clear set of guidelines to help you tell if it’s time for the meat to go.

Changes in color are the biggest indicators that the meat is no longer safe to eat. A change in color with a “slimy or tacky” feel is a sure sign you waited too long.

Although no two foods will have the same true expiration, trust your instincts when it comes to evaluating foods past their date. If you’re still indecisive, then download the USDA’s app “FoodKeeper” for item-by-item advice on how long to hang onto what’s in your kitchen.

Know that the date printed on the outside varies more because of arbitrary state laws rather than uniform safety standards. And keep in mind that freezing can be a great option to “stop the clock.”

If the food can be frozen (meat, for example), pop it in the freezer prior to its reaching the expiration date. It’s a much better—and more economical—option than letting it sit in the fridge, only to throw it out at expiration. Just be sure to label it (freezing has its own set of guidelines for how long to keep!). Save money and help yourself and the planet—stop throwing out food just because of the date. 

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