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What Do Food Expiration Dates Really Mean?

woman scrutinizing the expiration date on a container of food
lightpoet/Shutterstock

Food expiration dates appear on nearly all food items. It’s likely you’ve eaten foods past their listed expiration date and not noticed anything different. When something expires, should you throw it out right away?

Understanding the Expiration Date on Foods

Many foods contain a “sell by” date, which tells the store when to take that item off the shelf and stop selling it. It doesn’t mean that food is expired and unsafe to eat. In fact, according to the FDA, confusion over the dates on food and what the labeling actually means accounts for roughly one-fifth of consumer food waste.

Many of these types of labels are on food items. Bakery items often have a “best if used by” date, which alerts you to how long your pastries and bread will still be at their freshest.

A “use by” date might sound like a locked-in expiration date, but even that title doesn’t mean the food is instantly going to go bad. Like the “best if used by” on bread, “use by” means that’s the date at which the product may start to lose quality and freshness.

In fact, the very phrasing “best if used by,” “used by,” etc., aren’t even officially mandated, although the FDA encourages companies to use “best if used by” on their packaging.

Speaking of the FDA, according to them the biggest consideration is proper storage—it doesn’t matter if the “best by” date on your jug of milk is three days ago if the milk still smells fresh and has been refrigerated properly.

When to Get Rid of Food

Most food items are good for a few days to a few weeks past their “sell by” dates. Meat, poultry, and fish should be used or frozen on or within a few days of that date (make sure to cook immediately after thawing). Eggs are fine up to a month past their “sell by” date. Milk should be used within the following week. Canned goods and shelf-stable foods like cereal and grains are safe to eat well beyond the date on the container as long as they have been stored properly.

That said, if something smells bad, is discolored, or has mold growing on it, then it has definitely reached its expiration date. At this point, it’s safer to throw it out than to test it.

Yvonne Glasgow Yvonne Glasgow
Yvonne Glasgow has been a professional writer for almost two decades. Yvonne has worked for nutritionists, start-ups, dating companies, SEO firms, newspapers, board game companies, and much more as a writer and editor. She's also a published poet and a short story writer. Read Full Bio »

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