All About the Dates on Food Products: Sell By, Use By, Expiration Dates & More

Mar 23 2022 Hi Hungry Girl,

I've always assumed that the expiration dates on packaged food meant that the food wasn't good anymore after that date, but I've been hearing some conflicting info from different people. Do you know what the deal is with expiration dates? Thanks!

Does This Smell Funny to You? Hi DTSFTY,

There's a very good reason you're confused: There's no across-the-board regulation for those dates printed on your food! That's because the info they give you is more about freshness and quality and not as much about food safety. Plus, if you store and handle your food properly, it may still be good well after the printed date.

Let's break it down by terms, because most of the time, they're not straight-up expiration dates…

Sell-By Dates
These dates can be helpful to us, but really, they're there so stores know what old stock to remove from shelves. Dairy products, fresh & deli meats, eggs, and packaged fresh produce are the kinds of foods you'll find with sell-by dates. Foods are totally fine to eat after this date, but for how long will vary. Dairy products are generally good for up to a week after the sell-by date, whereas eggs are safe for 3–5 weeks.

Best-If-Used-By (or Use-By) Dates
These dates ARE for consumers like us, but they're not cut-off dates. Food past its use-by/best-if-used-by date hasn’t necessarily gone bad or spoiled. That date represents the last date the company can vouch for the best quality and flavor. It might taste fine beyond that, it might not. As long as the storage conditions are appropriate, these products might be good for months or years. BUT you have to be smart about it! If the packaging is compromised, like a dented or bulging can, skip it. And if you open a package and it just doesn't smell right, you know what to do!

Expiration Dates
Fun fact: The only federally required and regulated food dating is for baby formula, since the nutrients lose their potency over time. Other foods you might see with actual expiration dates are baking mixes, baking powders, and yeasts—that’s because after the listed date, they might not function and be as effective. Jams & jellies sometimes list expiration dates, since they can lose their texture over time. Beyond that, you'll mostly find expiration dates on vitamins & medications!

Pack Dates
See a date listed but it doesn't have any "use by" directions or indicators? You're probably looking at a pack date. This is another one used by stores to keep track of and rotate their inventory. You'll see them on snacks like cookies & crackers, spices, some canned goods, etc. It can be useful to you at home in a "HOW long has this can of beans been in my pantry?" way, but that's about it.

At-a-Glance Guide to Food Longevity!

Milk: Up to 7 days
Eggs: 3–5 weeks
Fresh poultry: 1–2 days
Fresh steak: 3–5 days
Fresh ground meat/poultry: 1–2 days
Cooked meat/poultry: 3–4 days
Lunch meat: 2 weeks unopened (3–5 days after opening)
Dry pasta & rice: 1–2 years
Canned fruit: 12–18 months (5–7 days in the fridge after opening)
Canned veggies and soups: 2–5 years

MOST IMPORTANTLY! Use your best instincts. If the food smells "off," is moldy, has the wrong texture, or—if it gets this far—doesn't taste right, don't eat it!

Chew on this:

Hooray, it's National Chip & Dip Day, March 23rd! We have sooooo many amazing dip recipes—grab your favorite chips, and dig in!

Save your pals some confusion—pass along this info & set the record straight!

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