What Your Food Expiration Dates Really Mean

Do you know what the expiration dates on foods really mean? You might be surprised. There are actually a few different date types that food can get stamped with, and it usually refers to the quality not the safety of the food, so you don’t necessarily need to toss something if it’s nearing its use by date. Those use by dates in fact contribute to millions of pounds of wasted food every year.

The practice of food dating started in the 1970’s and they indicate the peak freshness of the food. they don’t actually have anything to do with the likelihood of getting a foodborne illness from eating it, besides the fact that we associate freshness with not being rotten. We obviously don’t want to be eating rotten food. Foods that are expired however, are not necessarily going to make anyone sick whether they’re perishable refrigerated foods or canned goods.

Food dating has never had anything to do with public health, so it’s not regulated as if it were. That means that “use by” and “sell by” dates can be used inconsistently as well. Infant formula however is one exception and is federally required to be regulated since it loses it’s potency over time.

If there is a sell by date on your food, that isn’t meant for your eyes at all. The sell by date is there for the manufacturers and the retailers to keep track of their products. Although it is a way to shelve food to get it out to the public in a certain order, it’s still intended to be good to eat for quite a long time once it gets home with you.

Even when food starts to change it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad. For example granola might lose some of its crunch, chocolate can turn whitish on the edges. Eggs can be good for over a month after their “sell by” date, while milk usually lasts about a week. (And let’s be honest it’s extremely obvious when milk goes bad.) Smell tests can tell you a lot. Fresh meat on the other might only be good for a couple days before it has been cooked.

Do keep in mind that food has to be properly stored for it to last as long as you expect it to. Refrigerated items need to go back into the refrigerator and not be left out for a couple hours, for example.

So to recap; “sell by” is for the store to worry about, not for you. “Best if used by” will let you know about the peak freshness of an item, but not tell you anything about how long it is safe to eat. And a “use by” date is only letting you know when the product will start to deteriorate in flavor and other quality markers that matter to you. It is not a safety guide. We end up throwing away massive quantities of food that not only harms the environment but wastes money from our own pockets, so it’s a good thing to keep in mind.




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About Kate Ferguson Kate Fergus is a Los Angeles local and freelance writer for a variety of blogs and online magazines. When she's not writing, the UC Davis graduate is focused on pursuits of the entertainment industry, spin class, and hot sauce.