Food Expiration Dates: What You Need To Know

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Do you have a habit of throwing food away if its expiration date has passed? With the cost of food on the rise, you may be throwing your hard-earned money away as well.

In this article, we’ll cover food expiration dates in-depth, including what terms like “Best By” and “Sell By” really mean.

Food Expiration Dates: Everything You Need to Know

At Clark.com, we’re not health experts, but we are here to save you money in every way possible. That’s why we want to give you the tools that will help keep you from losing food through spoilage.

To get meaningful answers, we’ve sourced food date and label information from the guidelines of government agencies, including the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Food Labels Explained: Best Before, Use By, Sell By

The product labeling system is a voluntary regulation that food manufacturers have agreed to adopt. The only exceptions are infant formula and some baby foods, which require a strict “Use By” date to ensure that the nutrients are still intact at the time of consumption.

When you pick up an item and read its packaging, you typically will see a month and day along with something like “Best If Used By.”

Although there has been a recent push toward more standardized phrasing on food quality labels in the United States, there is no one set of terms that is uniformly accepted to describe how fresh these items are. But here are some common terms you may see on food items found on the grocery aisles:

  • Best if Used By/Before: This date indicates when a product will be of the best flavor or quality — not safety.
  • Use By: This indicates the last date the product would be considered at peak quality. It does not indicate safety except in the case of infant formula.
  • Sell By: This date tells the retailer how long to keep the product on the shelves. States will oftentimes regulate “Sell By” dates. For example, Maryland generally prohibits the sale of grade “A” milk or milk products past the ‘Sell By’ date. Other states may allow such items to be sold at discounted rates.
  • Freeze By: This date is a recommendation of when a food item should be frozen “to maintain peak quality,” says the FSIS.

If you haven’t guessed by now, none of the common food date labels is a recommendation about how safe the product is, according to the FSIS.

Is It OK To Eat Food After Its Expiration Date?

If you see food products — either on store shelves or in your cupboard — that have expired “Best By” or “Sell By” dates, you may be wondering if it’s OK to still eat them.

According to the FSIS, “Foods not exhibiting signs of spoilage should be wholesome and may be sold, purchased, donated and consumed beyond the labeled ‘Best if Used By’ date.”

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Of course, the type of food, how long you’ve had it, along with the temperature where it’s stored, would determine how long it keeps.

For example, when it comes to eggs, a “Sell By” or “Expiration” date “may be required, as defined by the egg laws in the state where the eggs are marketed. Some state egg laws do not allow the use of a ‘sell-by’ date,” the FSIS says.

How Long Can Certain Foods Be in the Fridge Before They Go Bad?

As you well know, buying the item in the store is only half the battle when it comes to food quality and freshness. Here’s a handy chart from the FDA that shows some common foods and how long you should keep them in your refrigerator.

ProductRefrigeratorFreezer
Eggs (fresh, in shell)3 - 5 weeksDon't freeze
Bacon7 days1 month
Raw hamburger, ground meat1 - 2 days3 - 4 months
Fresh chicken (whole or parts)1 - 2 days9 -12 months
Fresh turkey (whole or parts)1 - 2 days9 - 12 months
Fresh steaks3 - 5 days6 - 12 months
Cooked Fish3 - 4 days4 - 6 months
Fresh shrimp, scallops,
crawfish, squid
1 - 2 days3 - 6 months

Foods That Do Not Really Expire

Fortunately, there are some foods that you can keep around for quite a while. Most shelf-stable foods are safe indefinitely, according to the USDA. Here is a list of some of those and other food items that can keep for a long time:

Honey

According to the National Honey Board, “Honey stored in sealed containers can remain stable for decades and even centuries! However, honey is susceptible to physical and chemical changes during storage.”

Canned Goods

Canned goods will last for many years, “as long as the can itself is in good condition (no rust, dents, or swelling),” the USDA says.

Packaged Foods (Cereal Pasta, Cookies, Etc.)

According to the USDA, you can enjoy packaged foods well past any “Best By” date, “although they may eventually become stale or develop an off flavor.”

Maple Syrup

According to the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association, unopened, maple syrup will keep indefinitely. “Because it is an all natural product with no preservatives, once opened, a container of maple syrup must be kept refrigerated,” the group says.

Salt

Popular table salts like plain salt, coarse sea salt, fine sea salt and kosher salt have a recommended “Use By” date of five years, according to a Salt Expiration Guide from Morton, a leading salt producer.

Dried Beans

A resource article from Michigan State University says dried beans can keep for more than a decade if stored in a cool dark location.

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“If beans are stored in food-grade packaging, sealed buckets, reduced oxygen packaging or heavier plastic (Mylar) bags then they can be kept for 10 years or more,” the article says

Whole Grains

According to the Whole Grains Council, a consumer advocacy group based in Boston, whole grains have a shelf life of up to one year. “If stored properly in airtight containers, intact grains will keep for up to 6 months on a cool, dry pantry shelf or up to a year in the freezer,” it says on the group’s website.

Final Thoughts

In summary, if the “Use By” date passes after you’ve bought the item, it won’t be at peak freshness, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it has gone bad. Let the evidence of spoilage/deterioration be your guide.

“Spoiled foods will develop an off odor, flavor or texture due to naturally occurring spoilage bacteria. If a food has developed such spoilage characteristics, it should not be eaten,” says the FSIS.

For a quick way to ensure you know what’s in your pantry/fridge and how long to keep it, here are some tips I’ve gathered from the USDA and FSIS:

  • To prolong freshness, keep your perishables in their original packaging or in airtight containers.
  • For opened food items that need to be chilled, store them in the fridge as quickly as you can.
  • For peak quality, follow the “Use By” date on the manufacturer’s label.

But remember: As much as we love to save money, you cannot put a price tag on your health. Regardless of any date on the label, if a food seems “off,” it is better to toss it.

Let us know how you decide what’s safe to eat and what’s best to toss in our Clark.com Community!

Want more ways to lower your food bill? Check out the apps that can save you money on groceries.

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