Food Dating: How Long Does Your Food Really Last?

The world of consumer-packaged goods can be confusing, often cluttered with marketing jargon and layered advertising. But what about when it comes to how long our food lasts? This should be simple, right?


  • Except for infant formula, dates are not an indicator of the product’s safety and are not required by federal law.
  • Food dates refer to food quality and freshness. Thus, it is usually safe to eat your ‘expired’ food after its printed date has passed with the exception of infant formula.
  • A best-by date indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality.  It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • Sell-by dates tell the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management.  It is not a safety date. 
  • A use-by date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula.

Not exactly! While some areas of food labeling are straightforward and strictly regulated, food dating is rather arbitrary. In fact, food dates are not required by law! With the exception of formula and baby food, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require food companies to place dates on their food products. The only requirement is that the food is wholesome and fit for consumption.

Moreover, when food dates are used, they most often refer to food quality and freshness rather than safety. Thus, it is usually safe to eat your “expired” food after its printed date has passed (i.e. stop throwing away perfectly good food). The only exception to this is infant formula, which should never be used past the expiration date.

Claims like ‘best by,’ ‘sell by’ and ‘use by,’ are misinterpreted by consumers and as a result, much of our food is going to waste.  According to the USDA, about 30% of the total food supply goes to the landfill. Product dating is partly to blame, as consumers are confused by the labels or stamps they see on packaging.

Are you one of these confused people? Are you often left wondering if your food is still safe to eat? Let us take you through the meaning behind the most common food dating terms:

Best-by Dates

According to the USDA, the best-by date indicates when a food product will have the best flavor or quality. It denotes the optimal period of time during which the manufacturer feels their product will retain its original quality, but the product may still be enjoyed after this date.

Fresh foods that can spoil like boxed lettuces and bagged carrots typically display ‘best-by’ dates. While nutritional quality may decline with extended shelf life, these kinds of foods do remain safe to eat.

Best-by dates are also common on processed packaged foods including low-moisture pasta, rice and crackers, as well as canned foods. As long as these foods are stored properly, they should be safe for weeks to months after the best-by date. However, before consuming, you should always look at the product for signs of mold, or smell the item to ensure it did not go rancid. If cans are dented or bulging, it is time to throw them away!

Sell-by Dates

Sell-by dates are specific to the grocery store and how long they can have items on the shelves for sale. Once a product has reached the end of its shelf life as denoted by this date, grocers are to remove them.  However, it’s important to note that sell-by dates are chosen with the assumption that buyers may store or consume the item a few days after purchase.

Sell-by dates are common on items that need refrigerated such as eggs, meat and poultry. As a general rule of thumb, eating poultry 1-2 days past the sell-by date should be ok, while beef is generally safe for 3-5 days past the sell-by date. Eggs typically last 3-5 weeks past the sell-by date pending there is no sign of mold or odors.

Use-by Dates

A use-by date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality as per the manufacturer. It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula.

Similar to best-by dates, this can relate to taste, texture and appearance, but these foods can still be considered safe to consume afterwards. Since ‘use-by’ refers to the last day of a product’s peak quality, don’t extend consumption too far past this, and always smell and examine the product before consuming.

In all, confusion over the meaning of food dating can result in consumers discarding wholesome food. To reduce waste, it is important that consumers understand the dates applied to food products are for quality and not for safety.

Food products are generally safe to consume past the date on the label if stored and handled properly. But regardless of the date, consumers should always evaluate the quality of the food product prior to its consumption to ensure there is no spoilage. Until you start noticing an odor, flavor or texture change due to naturally occurring spoilage bacteria, it should be safe to consume the food—good news for those with a date obsession and desire to save some money!

If you are in doubt as to whether something is still safe to eat or drink, always err on the side of caution and throw it away. As they say, “when in doubt, throw it out!”

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