Sell-by, Use-by, Dates

January 23, 2012, by Ken Jorgustin


Most canned food products have a “for best quality use by” date stamped on the top or bottom of the can. “Expiration” dates are rarely found on canned food.

The general rule of thumb is that as long as the can is intact, not rusty and not bulging, the food is probably OK. In general, many say that canned food has a shelf life of at least two years from the date of processing.

However, canned food retains its safety and nutritional value well beyond two years, but it may have some variation in quality, such as a change of color and texture. Canning is a high-heat process that renders the food commercially sterile. Food safety is not an issue in products kept on the shelf or in the pantry for long periods of time. In fact, canned food has an almost indefinite shelf life at moderate temperatures (75° F and below). Canned food as old as 100 years has been found in sunken ships and it is still micro-biologically safe! No one will recommend keeping canned food for 100 years, but if the can is intact, not dented or bulging, it is edible.


Sell by” date. The labeling “sell by” tells the store how long to display the product for sale. This is basically a guide for the retailer, so the store knows when to pull the item. The issue is quality of the item (freshness, taste, and consistency) rather than whether it is on the verge of spoiling. “Sell by” date is the last day the item is at its highest level of quality, but it will still be edible for some time after.


Use by” date. This refers strictly to quality, not safety. This date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date. This is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality, the last day a product will maintain its optimum freshness, flavor, and texture. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product. Beyond this date, the product begins to deteriorate although it is still edible.


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