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Use-by, Best-by, Sell-by | Food Expiration Dates

What do Expiration Dates Mean?

Many are confused about what these ‘Use-by’, ‘Best-by’, and ‘Sell-by’ dates really mean.

Food dating was never about public health. Rather, freshness. Or peak freshness. Consumers mistakenly believe it’s primarily a safety thing. It’s not…

Use-by Date & Best-by Date

The ‘Use-by’ and ‘Best-by’ dates are intended for consumer use.

It is the date the manufacturer deems the product reaches PEAK FRESHNESS.

It is NOT a date to indicate spoilage. Nor does it necessarily signal that the food is no longer safe to eat.

Sell-by Date

The ‘Sell-by’ date is only intended to help manufacturers and retailers, not consumers.

The ‘Sell-by’ date is a stocking and marketing tool provided by food makers. To ensure proper turnover of the products in the store so they still have a long shelf life after consumers buy them.

Consumers, however, are misinterpreting it as a date to guide their buying decisions. Some say that “Sell-by” dates should be made invisible to the consumer.

Millions of Pounds of Food Wasted

Use-by dates are contributing to millions of pounds of wasted food each year.

A report from the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic says:

Americans are prematurely throwing out food, largely because of confusion over what “expiration dates” actually mean.

More than 90% of Americans throw out food prematurely. 40% of the U.S. food supply is tossed out unused every year because of food dating.

Most people do not understand what ‘Use-by’, ‘Best-by’, and ‘Sell-by’ dates really mean. Actually they are not “expiration” dates.

The fact that so much food is thrown out is stunning, and unbelievably wasteful…

Dates are Not Necessarily About Safety

Most consumers mistakenly believe that “expiration dates” on food indicate how safe the food is to consume.

These dates are NOT related to the risk of food poisoning or food-borne illness.

It’s About Freshness

The dates solely indicate FRESHNESS. And are used by manufacturers to convey when the product is at its peak. That means the food does not expire in the sense of becoming inedible.

For non-refrigerated foods, there may be no difference in taste or quality. “Expired” foods won’t necessarily make people sick.

But according to the report’s analysis, words like “Use-by” and “Sell-by” are used so inconsistently that they contribute to widespread misinterpretation — and waste — by consumers.

Examples

They say eggs, for example, can be consumed three to five weeks after purchase, even though the “Use-by” date is much earlier. Actually eggs can be consumed much further than that beyond the “date”, based on my own experience!

A box of mac-and-cheese stamped with a “Use-by” date of August 2020 can still be enjoyed on August 2021, most likely with no noticeable changes in quality.

Food Dating Was Never About Public Health

Food dating was never about public health. There is no national regulation over the use of the dates.

The only federally required and regulated food dating involves infant formula, since the nutrients in formula lose their potency as time goes on.

What regulation does exist occurs at the state level. All but nine states in the United States have food dating rules but these vary widely.

“What’s resulted from [the FDA letting states come up with regulation] is really a patchwork of all sorts of different rules for different products and regulations around them,”


“Sometimes a product needs a date, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes a product cannot be sold after a different date. Or there is no requirement at all.

Even with different categories there is so much variability.”The result is a confused public — and tons of wasted food.

-Dana Gunders, staff scientist with the NRDC

 
[ Read: 4 Ways How To Tell If A Dented Can Is Safe ]

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48 Comments

  1. Just this morning I made a cup of hot cocoa using cocoa with a date of NOV2009. There was no “Best By”, “Use By” or any other wording. Just that date. The cocoa is fine, no off taste at all.

    1. My cocoa has no date either…lasts forever. I saw 10 foods that last forever on youtube (Gene was watching)–cocoa was on the list.
      I have canned commercial tomatoes since 2008…always eaten within 5 years or so and have never had a can go bad.
      Now, my home canned tomatoes?? They are canned for a reason–to last me many, many years.
      Okay–till I eat them since I am 69 y.o. now.

  2. I made some lasagne a couple years ago with some expired tomato paste. It smelled funny, but I used it anyway. The lasagne tasted OK, but the next 24 hours, I was very close to vomiting with dizziness, and gastro problems.
    Canned fruit, even a couple years after expiration still tastes good, although the fruit may be a little mushy. I believe canned fruit is one’s best bet for commercially canned long term storage.
    I have no problem with keeping canned veggies long past their so-called expiration.

    1. extexanwannabe
      Tomato products you have to be care of,,, IF it smells funny or when you open the can the lid pops with a hiss, or the lid is bulged on either end- toss it! I have had tomatoes years old that were still good and then new products that were bulged which I tossed.

      When in doubt—toss it out,,,specially tomatoe procducts!!

    2. Karen
      I have a case of Kerns nectar with a Nov 2018 date. The aluminum cans look brand new and fine, but, I do not know if its ok

      1. Karen Weber
        Nov 18, not that long ago.

        Are any of the cans bludged? How have they been stored, in the heat? Open one, does it smell OK? Take a tiny taste, and I mean TINY, does it taste like it should.

        I think the product is just fine, A year out should not be a problem.

        BUT, IF YOU ARE AFRAID, THROW IT OUT. When in doubt, throw it out.!!!

        Not worth you getting food poisoning or worse.

  3. No mention in the article about tomato based canned food, pork and beans, some stews, soup and of course sauce and stewed tomatoes.
    I look at the packed on date and the expire date and those cans are gone no less than 2 weeks after expire date.
    Opened up a few to smell contents and look inside and saw that the interior was brown to full black in color from the acid eating away at can.
    Even tried a few spoonfuls of the pork and bean sample and it tasted like foil.

    1. MadDog94
      If you see pitting on the can either on the top or bottom of a can of food or along the edge of the seal, dispose of it. The acids are eating through the metal(s).

    2. MadDog94, For tomato products, I also am picky about those.I got a batch of bad products… several years ago…lost several cans of diced tomatoes. My way to handle ,..about a month ahead of the date, I open several cans, Check each one for odor, ,color, consistency, leakage…If they are ok…. drain them and dehydrate. Pack as usual in oxygen,. free glass container…. the juice I save by canning.or use it for a recipe.

      1. Just sayin
        Thats something i have been wondering about,
        Un pack,
        Heat
        Then re can in glass
        ????
        I wonder if that is doable?
        I know ideal is to just eat the stuff but if you get a deal on say a few cases if stewed tomatos or tomato paste and know you cant use them all,
        Would it be best to just start off re canning them to glass?

  4. Ken eggs often don’t hit the house from the farm until 30-45 days anyway when they are store bought in major cities. That may be why they say 3-5 weeks after purchase. That would put them close to the 90 day mark I use as max for my fresh eggs from my girls. Since there is no way of knowing when the store bought ones were layed it’s kinda hard to tell.
    extexanwannabe be careful with tomato canned products as the acid can eat very small pinholes in the cans.

    1. Store bought eggs are always marked with the Julian day they were packed, which is almost always the same day they were laid. I keep a julian calendar on my phone for easy reference.

  5. Tomato products/high acid foods in cans do not last as long as non acid. Acid breaks down the lining on the can. I just had Mr. throw away a case of tomato paste starting to bulge. He quit eating spaghetti when we found out about his sugar level so did not use like before. Pineapple, threw away 2 #10 cans in the last year. Was about 5 years old. I was going to freeze dry the paste, but not convinced it was good. So consider dried acid foods for long storage. Chili is another one to watch.

  6. A couple of weeks ago I posted about the USDA revisiting the required expiration dates. Believe I heard it from Ice Age Farmer on youtube. They do not want people throwing out food too soon and his opinion was because of the Grand Solar Minimum food shortage.

  7. We will eat anything up to one year out of date. Some things we will go much longer on. We have eaten canned veggies up to 5 years out of date. It seems that dry items like pasta, rice and beans will last much longer than liquid items. Mac-n-cheese with the powder will last much longer than the liquid cheese sauce. We have home made pickles that are 4 years old and still good.

  8. I see a lot of folks commenting about a specific food, no problem but the article is about the “Date” printed on each can.
    I know a LOT of people believe that a can that’s 2 weeks “Out of Date” hits the trash, yet others (myself included) could care less about the “Date”.
    The storage method is very important aka Temps, Humidity, Light (yes even on a can) is it dented, the rim damaged at all, so-on and so-on.
    I know for a fact that around 50% of my stored “canned food” is close or defiantly out of “Date”. Do I care? Most likely not.
    I do believe that a can of food that’s been improperly stored yet within the “Date” WILL be “Bad”, in the same breath a can that’s been stored correctly, will last many MANY years beyond some date stamped on it by the manufacturer.
    So what’s the answer? How about being intelligent enough to recognize the signs of a “bad” can of food.
    Did that can of Tomato Paste smell bad/Funny? Guess what, it was “Bad” and will make ya sick….
    Does a can of Pork & Beans smell bad, is the can rusted on the inside? Constance darkened and Black? Than why in heck would anyone “Taste” some, do they not realize that even a very small amount of Botulism or many other deadly ‘things’ will kill you dead? Sorry, don’t make sense to me.

    So if you don’t want to eat food “Out of Date” that’s perfectly your choice. Do you want to pop open a can of Tomato Sauce that budging on both ends and eat a few spoonsful, Hey go for it if you desire. How about one makes choices, EDUCATED choices, of their own AND be responsible for your Actions…..

    I do Thank Ken for providing the information for us to make our choices wisely.
    And yes I have tossed out “bad” food at times, NOT because the “Date” told me to, but because I was slightly in doubt.
    “When in Doubt, Toss it Out”, period.
    Other than that Rant, Keep on Preparing my friends, we never know If/When or even Maybe.

    1. – Ditto, NRP. Common sense does definitely apply. Problem is, Common sense is not so common anymore.
      – Papa S.

    2. Not sure why you felt a rant was necessary. The issue for most people is not a lack of intelligence but a lack of knowledge. Baby boomers grew up with parents and grandparents knowledgable about safety because they had to be; they canned their own food and they were the first humans introduced to “supermarkets” for purchasing food processed in centralized manufacturing sites and shipped to the stores. When they started purchasing canned and boxed foods they used to can and dry themselves, they were still very careful because they were not entirely trusting. For instance, because I started cooking for our family before I was a teenager, my parents taught me to always inspect cans before I opened them and to bring canned food to a boil before putting it on our table because they were worried about botulism. My grandparents refused to buy canned food but continued canning, freezing, and drying their own foods until their deaths in the late-1990s.

      Few children cook for their parents and siblings anymore as a regular responsibility, and for at least two decades now, most girls haven’t had Home Ec classes. Boys never did but people used to marry more and sooner than young people do now, so males and females are living separately from anyone very knowledgable about food safety.

      1. Mia:
        I see you somehow found a comment I made over a year ago about Canned foods. And Best By dates.
        That was just a little Rant so not to worry.
        But if someone will listen…. that’s a good thing.

        BTW, boiling foods will not distroy the botulism poison in food, just the bacteria itself. If the food has already turned and Bot has produced the deadly poisons…. well you get the drift.

  9. I am guilty of having quite a number of canned foods in my ‘deep storage’ that are beyond their ‘date’. Some are years beyond. I haven’t been as good as I should have been with food rotation in that regard. We have been consuming the older stuff to cut into the older canned storage. Haven’t keeled over yet ;)

    I do pay attention to my canned tomato products. Thanks to others who have brought up the subject of canned tomatoes.

  10. We are just now finishing up the last of 2017 home canned tomatoes. Even though they are in glass jars and the lids are coated, we still never keep them more than 2 years. They’re usually gone by then anyway. We never keep store bought canned tomato products more than a year past the date on them. Other stuff we’ll keep longer. You just have to use common sense when eating. In other words,smell, appearance, off taste, etc.

  11. Since 2008, I have thrown out a can of pears, sealed quart jars of flour, and sealed quart jars of pancake mix. I now put the jars in the freezer or a small bucket in the freezer.
    I don’t even discuss home canned vegetables and fruit shelf life any more. I have eaten home canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, green beans for 15 and 20 years. They were fine.

    1. Regarding the concern for tomato products, it’s about canned (in metal cans) tomatoes and the evident acidic reaction (over time) with the metal itself. Home canned (in jars) is not part of that equation.

  12. I worked through our canned (store canned) deep pantry recently. I picked up a couple of cans to use for dinner. I heard hissing and they were immediately put in the trash.

    I will now go through my canned goods more often and I’ll do it in a quiet room so I can hear hissing. Bulging cans are obvious, but the hissing was barely audible and the cans looked perfectly fine.

    1. If the hissing is air moving into the can…fine. If the air is hissing coming out..not fine. ALL canned foods have a vacuum inside the can, especially the all home canned foods in jars. The pressure canning process always creates a vacuum inside the jar. IN a glass jar the lid is kept in place by vacuum. If the food inside the jar spoils the lid will loose its seal as the internal pressure goes away. This is why you do not keep the rings on the jars after they cool, you WANT the lids to come off if the contents goes bad…and not be kept in place by the ring, which will also rust.

      This is why bad metal cans bulge and the internal pressure increases…and they cannot release the pressure…like a mason jar will. Not only this, but you cannot see into a metal can…like a glass jar.

      But I have both deep pantry metal cans and mason jars. Metal cans for small portions, canning jars for Quarts.

      Can your favorite BEAN recipes, which act as total means in themselves. Beans & meat recipes, you can pour over your freshly cooked Rice. This way, you can have all the slow cooked, flavor filled, meals ready at all times….cooking just letting the jar sit in the Sun for a bit, or dwell in the very water you are heating to cook the rice.

      Then just grab a few hand fulls of Purslane, like a salad green.

  13. Couple days ago ran accross some perking coffee grounds labelled 2014 (best by). This was in a large can, but it was not “metal”. Sort of a foil lined cardboard sort of can. Have to say, when i opened it, did not have that “coffee” smell i normally would expect. Also, pretty bland coffee. I think if it was in a metal can, it might have been different.

  14. Can rotation is a tedious process but a must do if you store food. We keep an eye on the tomato products and have found some bulging cans on occasion.
    We have used corned beef hash that is 4 years old , tuna 5 years old, canned ham 3 years old. All have tasted fine and we have had no problems .
    When purchasing we check for dings and dents . We prefer cans that do not have the pull tab opener. Again , if in doubt – throw it out.

    1. This pull tab is common today. BEETS??? Why?? I just pickled canned commercial beets and they were pull tabs which I still would have bought since I was pickling. But, I forget to check and get a few now and then.

  15. Canned food will be very important during the Zombie days. You do not want to be making wonderful cooking smells, or creating fragrant fire smoke, during this time.

  16. I enjoyed this article and the comments. It was very educational on dates, products and people.

  17. I am currently finishing up some pinto beans cans from March 2017. The smell and taste just fine.

  18. Did not realize dating was done by state and not a federal mandated thing. Interesting. It would be easier if the dates were done by one set of rules especially with all the trucking of foods. Good thing most of our food is home canned I guess

  19. There is a website by a connoisseur of sardines and it claims that sardine snobs prefer them in cans older than 10 years. A review is given of a 30 year old can and was still good. I’ve noticed a lot of canned fish do not have UBD’s on them. Fish is supposed to last the longest of any canned food.

    A very good source for old ways of preservation is at the Youtube channel by Townsend. There is one episode on preserving eggs, the best was to keep them in lime.

  20. This is good info, I’ve got two cans of blueberry pie filling from Nov 2018 that will now be made into a pie!

  21. Or is it?
    Nah I believe number 2 cause of the sunny disposition but then again this could just be a government blacklist conspiracy. Ohh I know we could ask a series of questions …..

  22. I have 5 cans of baked beans with date use by1-29-20 do you think they are still ok to use thanks

      1. Ken, I am thinking I read somewhere (here?) that canned (commercial tin cans) tomatoes are not good past date, or tomato based tin cans? the acid a problem?

        1. Jane Foxe:
          Simply “If in doubt toss it out”
          I have tomato based stuff thats 5-6 yeats years past the ZBB date thats is perfectly good.
          Some canned pineapple thats toast and goes to the trash thats 3 months past the BB.
          Only you can decide

          1. NRP & Blue — true about “if in doubt”. Interested to hear you had some 5-6 yrs past and was good. Wondered.

            Ken, yes, think it was beans…Was wondering re tomato/tomato products

  23. Ooh, I hope not. I’ve been using up some sauce that’s a year or two past. Found it tucked behind something. We seem okay so far, apart from the from the rash. :-)

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