Food Expiration Dates: What to Know

Food products often come with some type of expiration date. Manufacturers and stores sometimes use different wording for expiration dates. Learn what the dates mean and how you know if food is good or not.

Understanding Food Expiration Dates

The dates you see on food labels are not usually related to food spoilage. Instead, the dates tell you how long food maintains the best taste and texture. Federal law does not require food quality dates except on infant formula.

You may see different wording on product labels. How long is food good for based on the wording? By understanding expiration terms, you can better interpret how long your food is good. If you store and handle your food properly, it may still be good after the date printed on the packaging.

1. Sell-By Date

Refrigerated products most often have sell-by dates on the labels. Stores use this date to know when to remove products from shelves. You can eat food after the sell-by date. For example, dairy products are good for 1 week after the sell-by date. Eggs are safe for 3 to 5 weeks after the sell-by date. Examples of food that have sell-by dates include:

  • Milk
  • Yogurt
  • Cream
  • Eggs
  • Lunch meat
  • Salad mixes

2. Best if Used by Date

Eat your food before this date for the best flavor and quality. Your food doesn’t spoil after this date, but it may dry out or not taste as good.

Pack dates. Manufacturers and retailers use this date to track and rotate inventory. Food products that use pack dates include:

  • Canned goods
  • Crackers
  • Cookies‌
  • Spices‌

Your food may be good for months or even years after this date with proper storage. Compromised packages have holes, dents, or bulges. Don’t eat food from damaged packaging because it may not be good. Don’t eat food if it has a bad smell.‌

3. Use-By Date

Eat food by this date for the best quality. Manufacturers assign these dates to food products. Your food may be good past the use-by date.

4. Expiration Date

Expiration dates use phrases like “expires on” or “do not use after” for products. Expiration dates are used on food products like:

These products have an expiration because they may not function the same after the date listed. Yeast may not be as effective. Medications may not offer the same results. Baking mixes, jams, and jellies may not have the desired texture.

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5. Quality Assurance Date

Manufacturers and retailers use this wording on products with a long shelf life. Your food products may be good after the quality assurance date. They may lose some flavor, or the texture may change. Keep in mind that quality is not the same as safety. Food products with quality assurance dates include:

  • Boxed macaroni and cheese
  • Boxed soups
  • Bakery items
  • Cereal
  • Peanut butter
  • Mayonnaise

General Freshness Guidelines

Once food arrives in your home, it’s good for a certain length of time. This guideline is an estimate. Around 90% of people in the U.S. don't understand expiration dates on food labels. They throw away food that is still good or could be frozen for later.

Your food may be good for slightly more or less time based on how your store it:

  • Milk is good for 7 days in your fridge. Store it in the back of your fridge for the coldest temperatures.
  • Eggs are good for 3 to 5 weeks. Like milk, you should store eggs in the back of your fridge.
  • Ground meat and poultry are good for 1 or 2 days in your fridge. If you plan to use it later, freeze it right away.
  • Cooked meat and poultry are good for 3 to 4 days when stored in your fridge.
  • Lunch meat is good for 2 weeks before it’s opened and 3 to 5 days after it’s opened.
  • Dry rice or pasta is good for 1 to 2 years in your pantry. Once prepared, it’s good for 3 to 4 days in your fridge.
  • Steaks are good for 3 to 5 days in your fridge.‌
  • Canned fruit is good for 12 to 18 months in your pantry. Once opened, it’s good for 5 to 7 days if stored in the fridge.

Avoid Wasting Food

You may feel tempted to throw away food after it passes its expiration date. Many people think that food makes them sick after the expiration date. Foodborne illnesses are not a result of natural decay. Bacteria grow in contaminated food, so make sure you store food properly.

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If food sits out at room temperature for longer than 2 hours, throw it away. After preparing a meal, store leftovers quickly to avoid contamination. You can also keep your counters and food prep surfaces clean and free of harmful bacteria.

If you don’t plan to use food right away, freeze it. Bacteria can’t grow in freezing temperatures, so freezing extends your food’s shelf life. You can freeze milk, bread, and cheese. If you plan to freeze eggs, beat them first and store them in a sealed container.

Extend the life of your produce with better storage techniques. Examples include:

  • Wrapping broccoli stalks in a damp paper towel
  • Storing celery in aluminum foil‌
  • Putting asparagus in a cup with water

When the time comes to dispose of any food you didn’t eat, you can compost produce and packaged foods like bread. Composting is like recycling because you put your food to use instead of throwing it away.‌

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on September 21, 2021

Sources

SOURCES:

Cleveland Clinic: “Trash It or Eat It? The Truth About Expiration Dates.”

Consumer Reports: “How to Tell Whether Expired Food Is Safe to Eat.”

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign: “UNDERSTANDING FOOD PACKAGE DATES.”

U.S. Department of Agriculture: “Food Product Dating.”

© 2021 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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