Understanding Expiration Dates: A Guide to Expired Foods

Have you ever found yourself scrutinizing a carton of milk with a “sell-by” date that’s today? It’s a common scenario in kitchens everywhere. Understanding expiration dates is more than just a way to avoid a sour sip; it’s about ensuring food safety, minimizing waste, and saving money.

Beyond the “sell-by” date, there are also “best by,” “use by,” and “expiry” dates, each carrying different implications. Additionally, certain foods, like canned goods, may have a “packing code” instead of a straightforward date, requiring decoding to determine freshness. Let’s decode the dates on your food packaging together.

The Meaning Behind the Dates

Sell-By Dates

The “sell-by” date is primarily for retailers, indicating when a product should be sold or removed from shelves. It’s not a safety date but rather a suggestion for peak quality. For example, stores will pull milk from shelves on the sell-by date, even though it may be good for another week if stored properly (FDA, 2019).

Best-Before Dates 

Best-before dates are about quality, not safety. A packet of nuts might lose some crunch past this date but won’t necessarily make you sick. Trust your senses here—if it looks, smells, and tastes okay, it probably is (Harvard Health Publishing, 2020).

Use-By Dates

“Use-by” dates are the ones you shouldn’t ignore. They tell you how long the product will maintain its best quality and when it might start to go bad or potentially become unsafe to eat. Eating yogurt a day past its use-by date might be fine, but deli meats? That’s a riskier gamble (USDA, 2020).

Food Safety and Health Implications

Consuming expired foods can lead to foodborne illnesses, which nobody wants. Symptoms range from mild discomfort to severe dehydration and worse. To stay safe, always respect use-by dates, especially on high-risk items like meat and dairy (CDC, 2021).

How Expiration Dates Differ Across Food Categories

Dairy Products

Dairy products often come with a use-by date. Keep them refrigerated, and they might last a few days beyond this date. But if your cheese starts looking like a science experiment, it’s time to let it go (National Dairy Council, 2018).

Canned Goods

Canned goods boast a long shelf life thanks to their airtight seals. However, if you see rust, dents, or bulging, it’s a sign of spoilage, regardless of the date stamped on the bottom (FDA, 2019).

Fresh Produce

Fresh produce doesn’t usually come with a date, but it does have a finite lifespan. Leafy greens wilt, apples get soft, and avocados… well, they’re unpredictable. Use your judgment and experience to determine freshness (USDA, 2020).

Meat and Poultry

Meat and poultry should be consumed by the use-by date or frozen. If the color looks off or there’s an odor, it’s best to err on the side of caution and toss it (FSIS, 2021).

Misconceptions About Expiration Dates

One major myth is that food becomes harmful immediately after the expiration date. This isn’t true for many products, especially those with best-before dates. Another misconception is that canned goods last forever. While they do last a long time, they’re not immortal (NRDC, 2020).

Proper Food Storage to Extend Shelf Life

Proper storage can significantly extend the life of your food. Refrigerate perishables promptly, keep your fridge at the right temperature (usually below 40°F), and use airtight containers to ward off contaminants and moisture (FDA, 2019).

Expiration Dates and Food Waste

A staggering amount of food is wasted due to confusion over expiration dates. According to the USDA, Americans throw away approximately 30-40% of the food supply. Learning to understand these dates can help reduce this waste (USDA, 2020).

Remember, food safety is paramount, but so is reducing waste. By understanding what different dates mean and how they apply to various food categories, you can make informed decisions, save money, and contribute to a more sustainable world. So next time you’re faced with a questionable carton of milk, you’ll know exactly what to do.


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