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What Do Food Expiration Dates Really Mean? (And Is It OK to Eat Something After the ‘Best By’ Date?)

In the U.S. food expiration labels are inconsistent, assigned by the manufacturers themselves, and kind of confusing. Before you toss products from your cupboard or fridge, learn a little more about what the dates really mean.

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Do you toss foods in the trash as soon as the ‘best by’ date arrives? Have you stood in front of your open fridge debating if a particular food item was still edible or not? While food expiration dates are supposed to make it easy to determine what’s fresh and what’s not, things aren’t always clear.

A recent research study found that only 46 percent of its participants understood what a “Best If Used By” label meant. Even worse, just 24 percent correctly interpreted a “Use By” label. Failing to understand these labels can be bad for your wallet and the environment. It leads to a whole lot of food that’s still perfectly safe to eat winding up in the trash.

Let’s break down what different types of food date labels really mean – and help you make the most out of your groceries.

Do food expiration date labels really matter?

Food date labels, whether they’re “Sell By” labels or expiration dates, aren’t something assigned by any single authority. They’re actually kind of subjective and assigned to food items by the manufacturer or retailer. In fact, there is actually very little government oversight in how foods are labeled. The process of labeling foods with these dates is officially known as food product dating by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). And it’s completely voluntary for all food products – except baby food, the sole exception.

And food expiration dates don’t actually indicate when food expires. As J. Kenji López-Alt explains for The New York Times, product dating has little to do with safety. In many cases, it’s simply the manufacturer’s best estimate as to when that item will start to decline in quality. And in general, food manufacturers tend to underestimate these dates just to be on the safe side.

So, technically, the food could go bad by the date on the label. But since manufacturers err on the side of safety (and, some would say, the side of encouraging you to head back to the store and buy new food), it’s likely that the food is still fine to eat. You can generally think of these labels as suggestions, not hard and fast rules about when it’s time to throw out a particular product.

What food date labels actually mean

Part of the reason food date labels are so confusing is the lack of consistency. Because the USDA doesn’t regulate these labels, manufacturers are not held to the same standard across the board.

According to the USDA, food labels fall into two categories: Open Dating or Closed Dating. Open Dating is a calendar-based date, which is used to indicate when a food product will be at its best quality. Closed Dating isn’t actually a date; it’s a code that can include letters and numbers, and it’s meant to mark the production date and time. 

But neither of these labeling methods is standardized or universally accepted, so you can catch some pretty varied date labels at your local grocery store. There’s also no rule that manufacturers must use a “Best By” or “Use By” label along with these dates, except on meat, poultry and egg products.

So, how do you know what an expiration date or date label means? Here’s an explainer for three of the most commonly used labels.

Sell By

When you see a “Sell By” label followed by a specific date, this actually isn’t a label meant for you. It’s for the grocery store or retailer – and it’s designed to tell them when it’s time to take a food product off the store’s shelves. You don’t have to worry about this date, since foods are still perfectly safe to consume at their “Sell By” date. 

Best If Used By

The “Best If Used By” label, which can also appear as “Best Before,” is supposed to indicate when a product is at its best quality or flavor. Foods don’t expire once their “Best If Used By” date arrives; they’re just a little beyond their prime. You can safely eat foods past this “expiration” date, and you’ll likely notice no difference at all. 

Use By

A “Use By” date label is similar to a “Best If Used By” date. It’s chosen to indicate when a food is at its best quality. So, eating a food product past its “Use By” date is totally fine – you just might not get it at its most flavorful, crunchy or crisp.  

There’s just one exception to this label: baby food. As Consumer Reports explains, baby food that has a “Use By” date really does expire (and become unsafe) at the date on its label.

Freeze By

The “Freeze By” date label, which is commonly found on meat of all kinds, isn’t an expiration date. It’s more of a recommended date by which to freeze your meat so it’ll stay at its peak quality. Don’t panic or worry about cooking meat ASAP if it’s reached its “Freeze By” deadline; it’s typically still safe to eat. You’ll just want to make sure to follow the USDA’s refrigeration guidelines: cook or freeze beef within 3 to 5 days, and do the same for poultry and fish within 1 to 2 days.

How to tell what’s expired and what’s safe

If you’re still iffy about eating food past these food date labels, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the signs of spoiling in different foods. Foods will develop odors, different textures, change in flavor and develop mold as they go bad.

The USDA offers general guidelines for food safety and expiration. Here’s how long you can safely keep and eat foods like the following:

  • Canned foods: Safe to store for two to five years. If the cans have rust, dents or bulges, what’s inside has either expired or may be at risk of chemicals like BPA leaching into the food.
  • Canned high-acid foods: Safe to store for 12 to 18 months. This includes items like canned juices, tomatoes and pickles.
  • Frozen foods: Anything frozen is safe for as long as it’s frozen at 0 degrees Fahrenheit or below. Long-term freezing may create freezer burn, but food is otherwise safe to eat.
  • Eggs: Safe to store for three to five weeks.
  • Milk: Safe to store for one week.
  • Leftovers: Eat or freeze all leftovers within four days of storing them in the fridge.

Still unsure? Double-check any food that might be on the verge of expiring for visible or fragrant signs of spoiling. If you see any mold present, toss it out; follow the same rule if food has developed an unpleasant smell, throw it away. 


RELATED: How to Store Fruits and Vegetables Better, Save Money, and Reduce Your Food Waste

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