What You Should Know About Food Expiration Dates

You take a container of yogurt from your refrigerator and notice that the date on the package is a few days beyond the date you're planning on eating it. Should you throw it out?

Well, it all depends on the type of date stamped on the container and how well the product was handled, according to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service.

How to Decipher Food Packaging Dates

"Open Dating" refers to a calendar date stamped on a product's package to help the store determine how long to display the product for sale. It's also there to help consumers know the time limit to purchase or use the product while it is still at its best quality.

However, it is not a safety date. Even after the date passes, the product, while it may not be of the highest quality, should still be safe and wholesome as long as you've kept it at 40°F in your refrigerator. In addition to the month, day, and year stamped on the package, there should also be a phrase explaining the meaning of the date, for example, "Sell By" or "Use By."

Except for infant formula and some baby food, product dating is not generally required by federal regulations and there is no uniformly accepted system used for food dating in the U.S. The USDA recommends that you do not buy or use baby formula or baby food once it has passed its "Use By" date.

Here are the different types of food packaging dates and their meaning:

  • Sell-By: This date refers to how long a food product should be displayed for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.
  • Best If Used By (or Before): This date is recommended for best flavor or quality, but it is not a purchase or safety date.
  • Use-By: This is the last date recommended for the use of the product while it is still at its peak quality.
  • Closed or coded dates: These are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer and might appear on shelf-stable products, such as cans and boxes of food.

Staying Food Safe

Eating food past its expiration date might still taste good or it might not. Using good safety habits will help food last up to and beyond the date on the label:

  • Purchase products before the expiration date.
  • Take home perishable foods immediately and refrigerate them at 40°F.
  • Freeze foods if you don't plan on using them by their expiration date.




Fsis.usda.gov. "Food Labeling." http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/Food_Product_Dating/index.asp