Confused about food expiration dates? Learn more about how you can save money – and stop wasting food.
When you look at the expiration dates on food, what do they really mean? Expiration dates on most food items have little to do with the safety of the product. Best-by dates let you know when the product is at its best flavor and texture. It does not tell you when it will automatically spoil.
Americans throw away billions of dollars worth of food every year. Some of it is due to people being confused about the expiration date. There is no standard definition of expiration dates on a label.
“Best if used by” tells you when a product will be at its best quality or flavor. “Sell by” is for the store telling it how long to keep the product on the shelf to sell for inventory purposes. A “use by” date is the last date the product will be at its highest quality. These dates have nothing to do with food safety. The only product with expiration dates regulated by the FDA is infant formula.
Foods can go bad before and after expiration dates. For example, if stored properly, milk will last five to seven dates past the expiration date. One way to decide if the food is unsafe is if it smells bad, looks odd, or has mold growing on it.
To keep food safe, remember to wash your hands while cooking, avoid cross-contamination with meat and other foods, cook food to the recommended temperature, and store foods that can perish in the refrigerator or freezer.
The USDA can help you decide if a food is safe to eat. USDA’s FoodKeeper App can help track how long foods can be stored safely in the pantry, refrigerator or freezer based on when you bought or opened it.
Joanne M. Gallivan, M.S., R.D.N. is a registered Dietitian Nutritionist. She served as the Director of the National Diabetes Education Program (NDEP) in the Office of Communication and Public Liaison for the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from 1997-2016. Previously, Ms. Gallivan has served as project manager for NIDDK’s Weight-Control Information Network (WIN), a national source of information on weight control, obesity, and weight-related nutritional disorders for health professionals and the public; as Contract Manager for the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s National Cholesterol Education Program and Obesity Education Initiative, and as Director of the Prince George’s County Health Department Nutrition Division located in Maryland.
Barrier Islands Free Medical Clinic is a free clinic in Charleston, SC, that provides free medical care to uninsured adults. The Free Clinic serves adults with no health insurance living at or below 299 % of the Federal poverty level who live or work on Johns, James, & Wadmalaw Island or Folly Beach, or serve the Hospitality Industry of Downtown Charleston. You can sign up for our monthly e-news updates, or follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.