Those Food Expiration Dates Don’t Mean What You Think They Do

Angela Cabotaje Fact Checked
© Carolyn Lagattuta / Stocksy United

Use by. Sell by. Best if used by.

If these phrases sound familiar, it’s probably because you’ve seen them printed on practically everything at the grocery store, from cartons of milk to jars of pickles. Each comes paired with a handy-dandy expiration date letting you know just when you should polish off those pierogi or finish that block of cheese.

Here’s the rub: Those dates don’t mean what you think they do.

While you might be in the same basket as 42 percent of consumers who believe use-by dates indicate when a product is no longer safe to eat, that’s not actually the case.

“Sell-by dates and best-by dates are not about safety but rather about quality,” says Diane Javelli, R.D., a clinical dietitian at University of Washington Medical Center. “The manufacturer has put the date on there to suggest the recommended shelf life to get the best flavor, color or quality of the product. That’s based on their subjective opinion, not a specific safety standard.”

Yep, you read that right.

In fact, the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t require safety dates on any food products except for infant formula. So that container of yogurt you forgot to open lurking in the back of your fridge may still be perfectly fine to eat after its best-by date.

There aren’t even uniform federal regulations or guidelines about food date labeling. Instead states determine their own rules, resulting in wildly varied laws depending on where you live.

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Some states, like Washington, require pull-date labeling on all perishable packaged food items. Others, like our neighbor Idaho, have no such regulations. And still other states, like New Hampshire, only require date labels on specific items like pre-wrapped sandwiches and cream products.

That’s great news for your BLT and all but, as you might imagine, this disparity leads to a whole lot of confusion and needless waste. Some folks, unsure if an item is still OK to consume past its best-by date, simply toss the food in question. Millennials in particular are more likely to mistakenly associate date labels with safety and to chuck an item that’s past its use-by date.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Americans waste about 30 to 40 percent of the U.S. food supply. That’s 39 million tons of food each year. What’s perhaps even more appalling to us compost pail-clutching Seattleites is that the Environmental Protection Agency estimates about 95 percent of that discarded food ends up in our landfills. Not cool.

So what can you do to cut down on how much food you waste? And how can you tell if your fruit has truly gone funky or if it’s still fine to eat? Let’s start by unwrapping the confusion around those food date labels.

Decoding food date labels

Since there’s no national standard about date labels and food safety, manufacturers use various phrases that mean the same or similar things. The next time you’re cleaning out your pantry, refer to this cheat sheet to help you decipher those labels.

  • Best by, use by or best if used by: These phrases indicate the last date when an item will be at peak quality or flavor. The date is determined by the food manufacturer. Products may still be safe to eat after this date.
  • Sell by or pull by: This tells retailers the last date an item can be sold or displayed on shelves. Products may still be safe to consume after this date. Some states, including Washington, allow stores to sell or donate products that have reached this date but are not yet spoiled.
  • Packed on or closed on: This is when an item was packaged, sealed or canned. These dates are usually used to help retailers track stock and also pull items in case of a recall.

How to tell if your food has gone bad

Date labels aside, it’s still important to know whether or not your food is safe to eat, especially when it comes to perishable items like fresh produce, meat, eggs and dairy products.

So how do you know if that salmon fillet still gets two fins up? Well, for starters, pay attention to various cues that can help you identify if something is a little off, Javelli says.

“Look for visual signs of discoloration or mold. If the product gets mushy or really runny, if it smells bad, if the texture of fruit has become mushy or grainy, that’s probably a sign that it’s past its peak,” she explains. “For uncooked meat, if it becomes slimy or sticky, these are all signs, absolutely, that the product should not be used.”

Canned items, which can have a shelf life of anywhere from 2 to 5 years, shouldn’t have cracks, rust or a swollen appearance — all telltale signs that the food is no longer safe to consume.

Bread or other baked goods that sport spots of mold are not safe to eat, even if you tear off the parts with mold. Why not? There’s just no way of knowing how far those mold spores have spread, Javelli says.

And while the not-so-scientific sniff test can help you determine if your milk has soured, Javelli also notes that sometimes bacteria doesn’t create an obvious odor or visual change. In that case, it’s important to pay attention to the use-by date and how long the package has been opened or stored in your fridge.

Ways to keep your food safe

To keep that bacon from going bad in the first place — and to cut down on your compost contributions — you can also rely on a few preventive measures.

Always store your food at the proper temperature. Certain websites provide useful reference charts for how long to store your food and at what temperatures.

In general, refrigerators should be no warmer than 40 degrees Fahrenheit, while freezers should be kept at a chilly zero degrees. An inexpensive thermometer is an easy way to monitor this.

Keep containers covered in the refrigerator and always wipe up spills, especially from thawed meats, to help reduce the spread of bacteria. After your grocery store runs, put away perishable items as quickly as possible. The same applies to leftovers, which shouldn’t be left out for longer than two hours.

Javelli says these precautions are especially important for people who are immune compromised or have a medical condition that may make them more susceptible to foodborne illnesses.

Another simple way to track not only your food’s freshness but also help prevent unnecessary waste is to practice the “first in, first out” method. When putting things away after a grocery run, move older items to the front of your fridge or pantry and put newer items in the back. That way, you’ll be more likely to include soon-to-expire items in your meal planning or cooking.

If organization is really your jam, there are also tools like the FoodKeeper app from the USDA’s Safety and Inspection Service that allow you to track the shelf life and freshness time frames for everything from tofu to barbecue sauce. You can even add items to your calendar and receive alerts on your phone when your sour cream is about to curdle.

It looks like those days of crying over spoiled milk have definitely expired.