What Do Expiration Dates on Foods Really Mean?

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Since the introduction of expiration dates, a majority of the population has come to reference these printed dates when they decide whether to keep or toss an item. Still, the date printed on the side of a milk carton or loaf of bread isn’t necessarily a guarantee of a food’s safety—or lack thereof. With different labels like “sell by,” “use by,” or “best by,” interpreting expiration dates' true meaning can be confusing.

Here’s what the different expiration dates on foods really mean, how long you can keep foods past printed dates, and how to make the most of your groceries so no food (or money) goes to waste.

Sell-by Dates vs. Expiration Dates (and Other Terminology)

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), food manufacturers are not required to place date labels on their foods. (There is one important exception to this rule: infant formula.) In general, manufacturers add expiration dates to their products at their own discretion to keep customers informed about the item's quality. The FDA stresses that expiration dates do not pertain to a food’s safety, but to its quality.

Because the FDA doesn’t regulate the wording of expiration dates, manufacturers are also free to use their own terminology. This is why you’ll see various phrases on food packaging, such as “sell by,” “use by,” and “best if used by."

Each of these phrases has a specific meaning according to the USDA.

  • Best if Used By/Before indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • Freeze-By” indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • Sell-By tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date. 
  • Use-By is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula as described below.

The FDA currently recommends the phrase “best if used by” to help educate consumers that expiration dates relate to quality more than safety. This phrasing is also intended to help consumers understand that, when properly stored, food can be kept and used past its expiration date—it just might not be at its best.

It’s interesting to note, too, that food manufacturers don’t have to prove how they determined their expiration dates—the FDA does not provide rules for how long foods will retain their peak quality. It's up to each manufacturer to create their own best guess for when their product will begin to decline in quality.

How Long Can I Keep a Food After Its Expiration Date?

Expiration dates aren’t a deadline for getting rid of foods. Knowing this may help you to make better decisions about a food’s safety and freshness by using your own senses of taste, sight, smell, and even touch.But only when it is safe to do so.

You can assess foods for signs of going bad by looking for mold or discoloration, smelling for any “off” odors, and feeling texture and firmness. (Bad meat, for example, will often feel slimy to the touch, while rotting produce may feel soft.) Of course, if a food tastes wrong in any way, such as a sour flavor, it’s best not to eat it.

Industry experts do advise certain rules of thumb for how long you can keep some common foods past their expiration dates. Fresh eggs can stay good for a surprising three to five weeks after purchase. For milk, estimates vary, but a properly refrigerated carton should last up to five to seven days past its printed date. The same goes for properly stored bread. (Just be sure to check for spots of mold.)

This may surprise you, but many dry goods like oats, pasta, or rice can stay edible for months or even years past their use-by dates. (One older study found that, stored in a reduced-oxygen environment, rolled oats could still be edible after a whopping 28 years.) So don’t throw out that box of linguine just because its expiration date has passed! Rather, check its edibility with your senses.

Dangers of Keeping Food Past Its Expiration Date

Since expiration dates technically don’t refer to food safety, but rather its quality, the primary danger of eating food past its expiration date is (theoretically) that it may not be at its highest quality. For example, canned veggies past their sell-by date might be mushy, or frozen fruits might not retain their robust flavor.

Time plays a major role in the safety of foods as well. There is a risk of getting sick from eating food past its expiration date. This risk increases the longer you go past a food’s production date.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in six Americans gets food poisoning every year—and 3,000 die. Dangerous bacteria that grow in rotting foods contribute to these unfortunate statistics. If unpleasant odors, mold, or other indicators make you suspect a food has gone bad, discard it.

Using Food Before It Goes Bad

No one wants to throw out perfectly good food, but the reality is that Americans have a bad habit of wasting edible groceries. The FDA estimates that 30 to 40% of our food supply ends up unused.

Wondering how to make the most of your grocery haul before time runs out? Here are a few suggestions:

Embrace Meal Planning

Start with meal planning. (You might even try an app to make it easier!) By identifying what you plan to make for meals throughout the week, you’ll know what you need to buy. This can prevent you from over-purchasing.

Practice First In, First Out

Once your groceries make it home, make a commitment to practicing First In, First Out (FIFO). This means that if you bought one item before another (or if there’s something that will spoil quickly), use it first. You can even arrange your refrigerator or pantry by this method, placing foods with a shorter shelf life in the front and those that will last longer in the back.

It's important to note that most grocery stores use FIFO as a standard stocking practice, so selecting an item further back on the shelf will probably mean it has a longer shelf life.

Freeze It

When you do end up with more food than you can use, consider some easy home preservation methods. The freezer is a particular friend for keeping foods for longer periods of time. An abundance of fruits can be frozen for later use, as can fresh meats, many herbs, and some vegetables. Even dairy products like milk and cheese can extend their life in the freezer.

A Word From Verywell

Expiration dates can be a helpful reference for a food’s level of quality, but they’re not necessarily the best benchmark of freshness. To determine whether a food is still good to eat, practice using your sight, smell, taste, and touch.

6 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Confused by Date Labels on Packaged Foods? U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

  2. Food Product Dating. USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service.

  3. University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Cracking the Date Code on Egg Cartons. UNL Food.

  4. McEwan M, Ogden L, Pike O. Effects of long-term storage on quality of regular and quick rolled oats. Faculty Publications.

  5. Key Facts About Food Poisoning. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  6. Food Loss and Waste. U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

By Sarah Garone, NDTR
Sarah Garone, NDTR, is a freelance health and wellness writer who runs a food blog.