Expiration Date Meaning and Expired Food Dangers

Is it OK to eat food past the expiration date? Discover what expiration dates mean, the meanings of sell by date vs. expiration date and how to read expiration dates on food.

You may be unnecessarily tossing perfectly good food — and you’re not alone. Nine out of 10 Americans throw out food prematurely. The main culprit? Confusion around expiration dates. Many consumers take these dates as law, when they’re actually set by the manufacturer. Most people don’t realize that the dates on packaged goods aren’t related to food safety but are instead indicators of when the brand believes the product is its freshest.

To complicate matters, “use by,” “best by” and “sell by” are used so inconsistently that it makes it confusing to figure out when to toss an item or to keep it. These misunderstandings lead to major food waste: A staggering 40% of the U.S. food supply is thrown away unused because of food dating, according to The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America, a 2013 report from the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic.

So what can you do? Understanding what those phrases mean is the first line of defense.

Expiration dates

Use by and Best by:

Both of these refer to quality — not safety. Bottom line: Eating something after the date provided is usually OK. Sure, quality may decline slightly, though chances are you might not notice. The one exception is baby formula, which loses valuable nutrition over time.

Sell by :

You can ignore this — it’s not telling you when to toss your food! This date is for food retailers and manufacturers and has no bearing on when the food is good or bad. It’s a stocking and marketing tool to ensure product turnover in stores.

Now that you’re more familiar with the terminology, it’s up to you to decide what really needs to be tossed.

Canned Food vs. Fresh Food

In most cases, you can safely keep canned and packaged goods well past the date indicated, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. In fact, low-acid foods, like meat, poultry, stews, green beans and corn, should last two to five years beyond the date indicated. Canned food with higher acidity, such as juices and fruit, are often fine to consume 12 to 18 months beyond their use-by dates. Dried food like beans, rice and pasta will most likely last even longer.

Observing the dates with fresh food is a different story — though many items will be fine past the date on the carton. To help keep your fresh food safe to eat for as long as possible, store at 40ºF or below.

As a rule of thumb, once opened, red meat lasts three to five days in the fridge, while poultry, ground beef and fish last only one or two days. Leftovers should stay fresh for about four days, and eggs are usually safe to eat three to five weeks after purchase.

The best way to tell if something has gone bad is to use your senses. You can often see, smell or taste if that suspicious-looking food item has spoiled.


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