Interpreting Food Expiration Dates

Interpreting Food Expiration Dates

The sell-by date on the milk carton was yesterday. Will drinking it today make you sick? Can you eat a food after the “best if used by” date? Here’s a guide to understanding those stamped messages on grocery store packages.

In the grocery store, you study labels, looking for fats, sodium and fiber. What about those dates you see stamped on the package? What do those mean?

Food companies imprint or stamp dates that, depending on the product, tell you how long the item can be kept before it loses its freshness, safety or both.

These dates are mostly voluntary; there is no federal law saying that companies must have this information on their foods. The only exception is baby food and baby formula. Such foods can lose their nutrients after a certain date as well as their flavor. Do not give your baby these foods after the date has passed.

There are generally four types of dates on food:

  • “Sell by” or “pull by” – This is mostly for the manufacturer to tell grocers when the product should stop being sold. It does not mean the product is bad once it reaches that date. For example, milk can be safe and still have its flavor seven to 10 days after the sell-by date. Chicken can be good for one to two days after that date.
  • “Best if used by” (or “before”) – This is a date recommended by the manufacturer for the best flavor, texture or quality. It does not mean the product is no longer safe to eat once that date has passed.
  • “Use by” (expiration date) – This is the last date on which the product should be eaten. It may appear like this: “Do not use after January 1, 2006.” Food is no longer safe to eat after this date. Throw it out.
  • Closed or coded dates – These are packing codes, which help track the product as it is shipped across state lines. These usually appear on cans and some boxed goods and refer to the date when the product was packaged. Having such a date helps the manufacturer know where the products are in case of a recall. These dates are not “use-by” dates.

On certain baked goods, you may also see a freshness date, which is a date used for baked goods like coffee cake and cupcakes. Having reached that date does not mean the food is unsafe. However, it may not have the best flavor or texture.

Here are some tips:

  • Always check for an expiration date.
  • Do not go by the dates on the package once you open the product. Use it as soon as possible and be safe about how you handle your foods. For example, hamburger meat that may not have passed the “sell-by” date can go bad if you leave it unrefrigerated.
  • Refrigerate leftovers in a sealed container and use within three days.
  • Keep your canned foods at a temperature no higher than 65 degrees F. High temperatures cut down on their shelf life.
  • Reach for the foods at the back of the grocery store shelf. Grocers usually place fresher foods in the rear.
  • Do not use cans that are bulging, oozing or dented.
  • Check the dates on baking mixes because many have dehydrated fats that can go bad.
  • Mark the date you bought the product on the can. Canned foods can be stored for one year. Fruit juices, peppers, sauerkraut, green beans and tomato products should be used within six months.
  • Check for smell and appearance. If it doesn’t smell or look right, throw it out.
Scroll to Top