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Do Food Expiration Dates Really Matter?

Experts provide a guide to the variety of confusing 'freshness' dates on food.

How Long Are Foods OK to Eat?

If you are not up on your Julian calendar and dating seems sort of a hodgepodge, how about memorizing some basic rules?

  • Milk. Usually fine until a week after the "Sell By" date.
  • Eggs. OK for 3-5 weeks after you bring them home (assuming you bought them before the "sell by" date). VanLandingham says double-grade As will go down a grade in a week but still be perfectly edible.
  • Poultry and seafood. Cook or freeze this within a day or two.
  • Beef and pork. Cook or freeze within three to five days.
  • Canned goods. Highly acidic foods like tomato sauce can keep 18 months or more. Low-acid foods like canned green beans are probably risk-free for up to five years. "You do not want to put cans in a hot place like a crawl space or garage," Peggy VanLaanen, EdD, RD, a professor of food and nutrition at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, tells WebMD. She suggests keeping canned and dry food at 50 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit in a dry, dark place. Humidity can be a factor in speeded-up deterioration. The FDA notes that taste, aroma, and appearance of food can change rapidly if the air conditioning fails in a home or warehouse. Obviously, cans bulging with bacteria growth should be discarded, no matter what the expiration date!

Food Safety Tips

Since product dates don't give you a true guide to safe use of a product, here are some other tips from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Services:

  • Purchase the product before the date expires.
  • If perishable, take the food home immediately after purchase and refrigerate it promptly. Freeze it if you can't use it within times recommended on the chart.
  • Once a perishable product is frozen, it doesn't matter if the date expires because foods kept frozen continuously are safe indefinitely.
  • Follow handling recommendations on product.
 Storage Times After Purchase
Poultry1 or 2 days
Beef, Veal, Pork, and Lamb3 to 5 days
Ground Meat and Ground Poultry1 or 2 days
Fresh Variety Meats (Liver, Tongue, Brain, Kidneys, Heart, Chitterlings)1 or 2 days
Cured Ham, Cook-Before-Eating5 to 7 days
Sausage from Pork, Beef or Turkey, Uncooked1 or 2 days
Eggs3 to 5 weeks

 

When Do Other Vital Items Go Bad?

The FDA does require that drugs carry an expiration date. Alan Goldhammer, PhD, associate vice president for regulatory affairs of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), tells WebMD that safety, purity, and potency must be tested and established over time by drug manufacturers. If a drug says the expiration date is 18 months hence, it means these three qualities can only be guaranteed that long, assuming the drug is stored properly.

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