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Does All Food have an Expiration Date?

Posted in Food Safety on January 31, 2022

Food expiration or “Best if Used By” dates are commonly found on perishable foods, but these dates refer to quality, not safety. In fact, 90 percent of Americans throw out food prematurely, according to a survey from the National Resources Defense Council.

Understanding Food Product Dating

When you look at a product label, you will typically see two types of product dating. “Open dating” refers to the manufacturer’s calendar date that estimates the period of time when the product is at its best quality, which also helps the store know when to rotate their stock. “Closed Dating” is a manufacturing code that shows the date and time the product was created.

Manufacturers realized that open dating could be used as a marketing tool for average consumers, and there have been efforts to standardize them in some way. However, Federal regulations only require product dating or “expiration dates” on infant formula. What that means is that consumers could be tossing out food that is still perfectly safe to eat.

Common Expiration Dates and How to Read Them

The standards that govern food dates vary state by state. Depending on where you live, you may see different dates, and each one has a separate purpose. Here are the common types of food labels and their meanings:

Best If Used By/Before

This is a quality assurance date that suggests when the food will be at its best for taste and quality. The name is misleading, as it is not a purchase or safety date, but it is probably the food date that consumers pay the most attention to as a warning for when to throw food out.

Use By

This is the date the manufacturer suggests as the last date to consume based on quality. It doesn’t mean that eating it will make you sick if it’s a day or two past the use-by date, as it is not a safety date. Unless it is infant formula, evaluate the quality of the food yourself to determine if it is safe for consumption.

Sell By

The sell-by date indicated how long a retailer should display a product before it is taken off the shelves. It does not indicate that it is only safe to eat by that date, and according to the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), “one-third of a food’s shelf-life remains after the sell-by date for the consumer to use at home.”

Freeze By

This date is not a purchase or safety date, and only indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality.

Guaranteed Fresh

A guaranteed return fresh by date is commonly found on bakery items, and tells consumers when the product will be at peak freshness. It is still safe to eat the product after this date.

How Long Are Foods Safe Past the Expiration Date?

Here are the recommended guidelines for how long perishable foods can last as long as they remain refrigerated.

Product Type Storage Guidelines 
Eggs Consume within 3 to 5 weeks 
Yogurt Consume within 2 weeks, or 2 months when frozen
Milk Drink within 1 week, or 3 months when frozen
Butter Consume within 3 months, or 6 months when frozen
Cold Cuts Consume within 2 weeks (unopened), 5 days once opened, or 2 months when frozen
Hot Dogs Consume within 2 weeks (unopened), 1 week once opened, or 1 to 2 months when frozen
Bacon Consume within 2 weeks (unopened), 1 week once opened, or within 1 month when frozen
Mayonnaise  Consume within 2 months when opened, or can be stored in the pantry for 3 months when unopened
Ketchup  Consume within 6 months when opened, or can be stored in the pantry for 1 year when unopened
Rice and dry pasta Consume within 2 years
Jams and jellies Consume within 6 months when opened, or can be stored in the pantry for 1 year when unopened
Soda, bottles and cans Drink within 2 days of opening, or can be stored in the pantry for 6 months when unopened
Beer, bottles and cans Drink within 2 days of opening, or can be stored in the pantry for 6 months when unopened 

Do Canned Foods Have an Expiration Date?

The USDA divides commercially canned food into two categories: highly acidic and low acidic. Highly acidic foods have a recommended shelf life of 12 to 18 months. These include canned goods such as peaches, apples, pears, pickled foods, vinegar and tomato-based foods, such as salsa, canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, etc. Once opened, highly acidic and commercially canned food should be discarded after the seventh day of refrigeration.

Low acidic foods have a much longer shelf life and, if stored properly, can last between 2 to 5 years. These are not tomato- or citrus-based foods, such as canned meats, poultry, soups, and many vegetables like corn, peas, and squash.

However, there is a deterioration with any canned food when significant time has passed since the manufacturer’s “expiration date.” So, although it may be safe to eat, it doesn’t mean it will taste similar to opening the can on the day of purchase.

What Do Expiration Dates Mean on Frozen Foods?

Items bought from the freezer section of a grocery store can last indefinitely if unopened. Their expiration dates indicate when the product will be best, taste and quality-wise. Over time, the flavor and texture will break down. Once you open the bag, be sure to pour the food out rather than reaching in with your hand, or else you may expose it to bacteria.

How to Tell if Food Has Gone Bad

Food perishes because it is introduced to bacteria attracted to its nutrients. The best gauge for determining when food is still edible is your nose. If you are still uncertain, you can taste test a bit of the food in question by setting it on your tongue but do not swallow. If you have the urge to spit it out (or worse), then toss it right away. It is always better to play it safe than risk a foodborne illness. Maintain a temperature between 34 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit in your refrigerator to keep food from spoiling.

If you or a loved one became sick after ingesting contaminated food, contact a food safety lawyer. At The Lange Law Firm, PLLC, we can help.