Here's Why You Can't Trust Food Expiration Dates

expiration date

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Key Takeaways

  • Best-by and sell-by dates for most food items only indicate food quality, not food safety.
  • Confusion about expiration dates has contributed to 20% of the overall food waste in the United States.
  • Without a standard food product dating system, you may have to rely on your senses to gauge whether certain foods are still safe for consumption.

Expiration dates on most food items have nothing to do with safety.Best-by dates only tell you when a food is past its peak quality period, but many items are safe to eat long after that date. For example, refrigerated eggs can last five weeks after they were purchased. And breakfast cereal can last for three months, even after it’s been opened.

“The dates are there to let consumers and retailers know when a product will be at its best flavor and texture, not when it will suddenly spoil,” Dani Matthies, RD, CD, LD, a corporate registered dietitian with Hy-Vee, told Verywell in an email.

Americans toss about $165 billion worth of food every year, and 20% of the food waste is related to confusion about expiration dates, according to an estimate by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Understanding what the expiration date labels mean might help cut down on unnecessary food waste in your household.

Did You Know?

Infant formula is the only food product with an expiration date that's regulated by the FDA for the purpose of safety and ingredient control.

Best By, Sell By, Use By 

There is no universal standard for describing expiration dates on food labels in the United States. When you’re at a grocery store, you might see phrases like “best by,” “sell by,” and “use by.”

A “best if used by” date indicates when a product will be at its best flavor or quality, while a “sell by” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. A “use by” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality.

None of these dates refers to food safety.

Lynette Hem-Lee, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist at ShopRite in Jersey City, told Verywell that the dates on food labels are not “an exact science.” But she often sees customers place items back on the shelf if the best-by date is approaching.

While the FDA only regulates expiration dates for infant formula, the agency said it would like the food industry to adopt a standard “best if used by” label.

However, the food industry doesn’t have much of a financial incentive to change its practices. If consumers throw away food that’s past its expiration date, they would end up buying more new products.

“So the consumers are very confused, and who benefits from this? The manufacturers,” Hem-Lee said.

How Can You Tell If the Foods Are Still Safe?

About 48 million people in the U.S. get sick from a foodborne illness each year, and yet consumers are often left to determine food safety on their own.

Experts say the expiration dates on food packaging are not a deadline for food spoilage, and foods can go bad before or after the date.

“Milk, for instance, is going to last five to seven days past the expiration date,” Isabel Maples, MEd, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told Verywell. But deli meat really only lasts a few days, she added.

There are ways to determine when a food product has gone bad besides looking at expiration dates. Throw out food that smells bad, looks odd, or has mold growing on it, Matthies suggested.

But this practice won’t help people identify all foodborne pathogens. For instance, listeria, one of the main causes of food poisoning deaths in the U.S., can’t be smelled or tasted in food.

To promote food safety, health authorities recommend keeping your hands clean, avoiding cross-contaminating meat with other items, cooking everything to the right temperature, and storing perishable food in the refrigerator or freezer.

Innovative Alternatives to Expiration Dates

Some agencies and companies are working to try to change the way consumers think about expiration dates.

Imperfect Foods, a grocery delivery service focused on eliminating food waste, has removed “sell-by” and “best by/use by” dates from some of its packaging in an effort to cut down on food being thrown away while it is still safe to eat.

And organizations like Too Good To Go and Table to Table help rescue food from supermarkets and restaurants that would otherwise be wasted if it isn’t sold by the package’s “sell-by” date.

If you’re trying to decide if your pantry items or leftovers are still safe to eat, you can use the USDA’s FoodKeeper App instead of relying on expiration dates, Maples suggested. This app can help you track how long foods can be safely stored in the pantry, refrigerator, or freezer based on when you purchased or opened the product.

In addition to these strategies, meal planning and thinking about where to store food can help eliminate food waste and an over-reliance on expiration dates.

If it’s hard to shake the habit of checking expiration dates at the grocery store, you can still use this to your advantage, according to Matthies.

“Think of expiration dates as another resource to help you get the most out of your grocery purchases,” she said. “If you buy fresh meat that’s close to its expiration date, you know to use that for meals sooner in the week, or to freeze it.”

What This Means For You

Expiration dates don't indicate safety. It's best to use your senses to judge whether a food product is still safe for consumption.

7 Sources
Verywell Health 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. Food and Drug Administration. How to cut food waste and maintain food safety.

  2. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. FoodKeeper app.

  3. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Food product dating.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Foodborne germs and illnesses.

  5. Michigan State University Extension. Listeria is a harmful bacteria you can’t see, smell or taste.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Four steps to food safety: clean, separate, cook, chill.

  7. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. How to keep produce fresh longer - infographic.