We’ve all seen those “Best By,” “Sell By,” and “Use By” dates on foods such as meat, milk, and canned and packaged foods. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that 30 percent of the U.S. food supply is lost or wasted, partly because consumers throw food away based on these dates. But what do these dates really mean? Can you safely eat food past the printed date? Here’s what you need to know about food expiration dates.
No national standards
With the exception of infant formula, federal law does not require food expiration dates. Some states do, but their laws conflict. Some food manufacturers base these dates on their own research, but many don’t. The upshot is that there are neither uniform nor universally accepted standards for how long food can safely be consumed.
What do those labels mean?
Food expiration dates on labels and packages have to do with food quality, not safety. As long as the food has been properly handled, you can safely eat it past these dates. But the food’s quality may be past its prime.
The USDA interprets food date labels as follows:
- A “Best If Used Before/By” date has to do with quality, not safety or when to purchase.
- A “Sell By” date is intended to assist a store with inventory management. It isn’t a safety date.
- A “Use By” date indicates the last day a food will be at peak quality.
- A “Freeze By” date tells consumers when to freeze a product to maintain peak quality.
Proper handling is key
The USDA emphasizes that food safety depends on proper handling – for example, practices such as keeping meat and milk in the coldest part of the refrigerator, refrigerating leftovers within two hours, and storing canned food at room temperature in a dark place. Foodborne illnesses result from improper handling, not age. Properly handled foods are safe to eat unless the odor, texture or taste of the food is strange, or a can is dented or bulging.
An exception is foods such as deli meat that are prone to contamination with listeria, a harmful bacteria. Because listeria has no odor, do not eat foods prone to listeria contamination after the date on the package.
If a food such as fresh meat is past its “sell by” date but smells fine, cook it before eating. You can also freeze foods before the expiration date to preserve their safety. Bacteria does not grow in frozen foods.
USDA rules for particular foods
- Milk should remain safe for seven days if stored in the coldest part of the refrigerator.
- Eggs should be purchased before the “Sell By” date but will remain safe to eat for three to five weeks after being refrigerated in the coldest part of the refrigerator (not the door).
- Raw ground meats, poultry and fish should be cooked or frozen within one to two days of being refrigerated.
- Beef, veal, pork and lamb roasts, steaks and chops may be safely kept three to five days before cooking or freezing.
- Cooked meats, poultry and seafood can be safely kept in the refrigerator for three to four days.
Consumers with food safety questions can find answers at ask.usda.gov.
Related – Safety First When Grilling Great Food