What Do Expiration Dates on Food Packages Really Mean?

— Written By Lethia Lee and last updated by Patricia Burch
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You’ve probably found yourself in the kitchen or at the grocery store mulling over the various dates listed on many food products. You know, those best-before dates, sell-by dates, use-by dates and so on. But what do these dates actually mean? Do I have to dump the 11 eggs I haven’t touched yet? Is my food safe?

Be at ease. These various food packaging dates are often established by the food manufactures in relation to product quality, not necessarily the safety of the product that is being consumed. However, food label dates can have different implications for different products (e.g., milk, cheese, raw meats, sauces, and soups, fresh produce and even infant formula.

The question remains should you follow expiration dates and sell-by dates? It is heartbreaking to spend money on quality ingredients and then discover you haven’t been able to use them by the expiration dates. It’s a waste of money and a waste of all the resources that went into producing that food. But what does “expiration date” really mean? Is the food definitely inedible? And, what’s the difference between a “sell-by date” and a “best-if-used-by date”? What will happen to you if you eat something with a date that’s passed. One essential way to reduce food waste is to figure out which sell by expiration dates matter and which don’t and to build the skill of using your eyes and nose as a guide; handy to have when you are developing your abilities as a home cook. The dates are in some cases, not that strict. In fact, the only federally regulated food date label is the one required on infant formula.

The Washington Post recently ran this excellent overview by consumer reports that breaks it down, and I highly recommend giving that a read. The short story is that, for a lot of foods, those dates are a rough suggestion. If you’re willing to let sight and smell be your true guide, you might be able to extend the life of your food and have less of your money end up in the trash.

Best If Used By/ Before. This guarantees when a product is the best quality or flavor. For instance, a jar of salsa may not taste as fresh or crackers may be soft instead of crisp after this date. It’s not about safety.

Sell By. This is the date set by manufactures to tell retailers when to remove the product from shelves. The goal is to ensure that the consumer has the product at its best quality, which can be several days to several weeks., depending on the item. For instance, milk, assuming proper refrigeration, should last five to seven days past its sell-by date before turning sour.

Use By. This is the last date that guarantees the best quality of a product. This is also not a safety date, except when used on infant formula. In many cases dates are conservative, so if you eat the food past that date, you may not notice any difference in quality, especially if the date has recently passed.

As a general rule, most canned foods can be stored for two to five years, and high acid foods (canned juices, tomatoes, pickles) can be stored for a year or even 18 months, according to the USDA. Watch out for dents and bulges in cans; however, that might be a sign it’s time to toss those products.

Foods past their prime often develop mold, bacteria, and yeast, causing them to give warning signs to your senses. Spoiled food will usually look different in texture and color, smell unpleasant and taste bad before it becomes unsafe to eat.

Food-borne illness comes from contamination, not from the natural process of decay. With that said, bacteria such as listeria thrives in warmer temperatures. It’s important to always keep your perishables refrigerated at the proper temperature. The Food and Drug Administration says your fridge should be set no higher than 40 degrees.

One good rule is to throw out perishable items after two hours at room temperature or half that time in high heat. Also, keep all food-preparation surfaces clean, and avoid the cross contamination of raw meat and other grocery items.

The most important thing that consumers should do is follow good food-handling and storage practices, which can prevent unnecessary spoilage and ensure food safety.

I hope this information will put your mind at ease when shopping or getting foods from different Food Banks. I believe that we perish because of the lack of knowledge.

For more information on sell-by, use-by and shelf life contact Lethia Lee at the N.C. Cooperative Extension of Sampson County office at 910-592-7161 or Lethia_Lee@ncsu.edu.