Expiration Dates: What Do They Really Mean?// on Tuesday August 23, 2016
You’re in the middle of making a meal for a church potluck and notice your shredded cheese is a couple days past its prime based on the bag’s printed expiration date. Should you use it anyway? Toss it in the trash?
Food expiration terms like “sell by” and “use by” can be confusing and can contribute to food waste. Here’s what these terms really mean:
“Sell by” date: This date is geared toward retailers. It specifies when stores should pull items from their shelves to guarantee peak freshness. You can enjoy food for awhile after its sell-by date passes.
“Best before” date: This quality indicator marks when you should eat the food for best flavor, taste and freshness. Foods can still be enjoyed past their “best before” dates.
“Use by” date: The most stringent of the bunch, this date marks the last date recommended for consuming the product at peak quality, but foods aren’t automatically inedible once this date expires.
As you may have guessed, these dates are determined by the manufacturer and they pertain to food quality rather than food safety. For instance, eggs can be consumed 3 to 5 weeks after you purchase them, if they’re stored properly. How you store food impacts its overall shelf life – especially after the printed date passes.
When in doubt, use your senses – and common sense – to determine whether to keep or toss food. If your milk is lumpy, pitch it. If your juice smells or tastes sour, pitch it. If your mayo has a layer of mold, pitch it. But if your shredded cheese doesn’t look, smell, or taste bad, you may still use it even if the printed date on the bag says it’s four days past its prime.
For a general rundown of expiration dates for opened and unopened products, check out this Real Simple article – it may surprise you. Also consider the USDA’s FoodKeeper app, which offers storage guidance for more than 400 food and beverage items, including storage timelines for the fridge, freezer and pantry. And if you’re wondering how long leftovers last – since those don’t come with printed expiration dates – click here for tips.
It’s always better to be safe than sorry, but being savvy about shelf life can help you reduce food waste, use what you have and clear up confusion the next time you’re digging through your fridge.