Sell-by, Use-by, Dates


While “expiration” dates are rarely found on canned foods, most canned food products have a “use by” date stamped on the top or bottom of the can.

Ever wonder what that actually means?


“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 is still 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 is still edible afterwards.


As a general ‘rule of thumb’, as long as the can is intact, not rusty and not bulging, the food is probably okay. In general, many agree that canned foods have a conservative shelf life of (at least) two years from the date of processing.

It is generally considered that canned food retains its safety and (diminishing) nutritional value well beyond two years, while 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 for properly canned 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 has still been micro-biologically safe!

No one will recommend keeping canned food for 100 years, however if the can is intact, not dented or bulging, it is likely edible.

When in doubt, cook it (which you probably would do anyway).

For more information, read this article:

USE-BY and SELL-BY dates


    1. Oh man…that would make dog farts smell downright pleasant by comparison, eh. ;>)

    2. So if the person eating the 100 year old beans is also 100 years old, its a wash, right?

    1. Thanks hogdog, I think there’s some confusion out there and I’ll bet that lots of people throw out food because they think these dates are some sort of ‘expiration’ dates…

  1. Grandma also warned about shrinking labels and dented cans.

    Something you might also consider is your overall level of health. I know a guy who is delighted to be consuming canned chili that he got for 19 cents a can *way* back when. I’m simply not that hungry.

    1. A can that’s in good shape should be able to suck air when the can opener breaks into it, just like a mason jar does when you break the seal by prying up the lid. When it’s badly dented, there will be enough pressure applied by that inward pressure, that you won’t be able to tell if it would have swollen up from bacterial growth, just like the mason lid would bow up as a visible warning. I’m a home canner.

  2. My own anecdotal story: When I was a bachelor in college and living on top ramen (got less money from the GI Bill than the welfare recipients with pell grants, but I digress) I was helped by an old farm couple that took a liking to me. This was 1989-1991. They provided me with their own canned goods (in mason jars) of stewed tomatoes, peaches, apricots, asparagus that were in their pantry. They had their cans dated, and the ones I was given and ate from, were 1970. Having started life as a city boy I was a little reluctant at first but my confidence was increased when the tops all made a hissing sound as the vacuum seal was broken. As a starving college student I found the food edible and tasty. Although I now have preps of dehydrated and freeze dried food (good for 25 + years) I don’t hesitate to supplement with high protein canned goods such as pork and beans, chili, etc to add different tastes for when the SHTF.

    1. When I was in the Harmy, as in ‘Harmy training suh!’, way back when we ate C rats (not the proper term) that were older than I was. Also did K rats which had smokes in them. Not very PC.

  3. While in basic training at Lackland AFB back in 1983, on at least one occasion we were fed boxed WW2 canned rations. The 40+ year old canned ham and apple cake were fine and nobody got sick – and yes, the cigarettes were still included. I later went on to become a US Naval Supply Officer and saw that we stopped feeding our recruits these rations, the only reason was that inventories were ¨used up¨ in the late 80´s. In theory, as long as the can is intact (not rusted, dented or swollen) the food inside should have an indefinite shelf life thanks to the ¨Vacuum¨ in which it´s contained.

  4. notalone
    This article clears up a lot of mis-information about BAD canned foods. Wonder how much has been tossed out that could have been consumed?

  5. It is hard changing the mind which thinks if the date states it is OLD, because it is past the expiration date, you must toss it and buy new.

    Our mother taught me, but some how the youngest sister missed that class, it has taken me years to program her into the correct mind set. The nieces were easy as we took care of them while she was at work.

    The industry has trained the past generations well, sister told me she had a friend doing the same thing until youngest sister told her what I had drilled into her over the years. ‘IT is only a date’ to go by, so add at least 2 to 5 years to the printed date if keep in the best conditions but do not throw it out
    consume that food. As long as the can is not bulged and the vacuum has held.
    A dud sound means you have lost the seal, just like canning toss the food.

    1. I go through the aged-cans argument frequently with family members. More recently, the man of the house is onboard, but he spends lots of time ranting and demanding exact numbers for shelf life, and how much we use (we’d use a lot more if there were less access to fresh foods.)

      1. Still You can search shelf life of different foods.

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