Do you know what food expiration dates mean? They’re not what you think. Here’s how to understand those dates you see on product packages and how long your food is safe to eat.
What Food Expiration Dates Mean
DATES ARE NOT LEGALLY REGULATED
Did you know those dates you find on the ends of cans, boxes, tubes, and other packaging aren’t uniformly regulated? They’re not even legally required — the FDA simply recommends them.
In fact, the only requirement is that food sold must be “wholesome and fit for consumption,” so there’s no law preventing stores from selling food past its expiration date. The only exception to this is infant formula since its potency degrades over time.
All other dates are regulated by state law, with each state having its own interpretation. One state may declare that milk must be sold before it’s “Sell by” date while the neighboring state says it can be sold later, so long as it’s still fresh
WHAT DO THE DIFFERENT TERMS MEAN?
In general, the dates you see printed on food packaging are set by food manufacturers. What the dates mean depends on the label used.
“Sell by” dates inform stores how long they can display a product for sale.
“Best by” or “Best if used by” dates reflect that, based on the manufacturer’s research, the product will lose its freshness or begin to change after that date. Artificial colors may start to fade, for instance, or liquid ingredients may begin to separate.
“Use by” and “Expires after” dates, which are also based on manufacturer research, warn consumers that the product may not be as active or taste the same after that date.
HOW THIS AFFECTS YOU
That package of ground beef you picked up three days ago says that today is the “sell by” date. You’re safe waiting until the weekend to use it, right? Not necessarily, since the dates on food packaging have nothing to do with food safety.
Remember, the “sell by” date is a directive to the store, not the consumer. Regardless of the “sell by” date you should cook or freeze raw ground beef within 1-2 days of bringing it home. Why? Because home refrigerators are not as consistently cool as commercial ones, and bacteria breeds in variable temps.
HERE IS HOW LONG FOOD STAYS GOOD
- Bacon (fresh or cooked): 1 week fridge, 6 months freezer
- Butter: 1 month fridge, 6 months freezer
- Bread: 5 days shelf, 1 week fridge, 6 months freezer
- Canned goods: 3 to 6 years if kept in cool, dark place and undented
- Cereal: 3-5 months opened, 6-8 months unopened
- Chocolate: 1 year
- Cooked beef: 1 week fridge, 6-8 months freezer
- Cooked poultry: 2-3 days fridge, 1 year freezer
- Cooked sausage: 7 days fridge, 6-8 months freezer
- Cottage cheese: 7-10 days unopened in fridge, 5-7 days open in fridge, 3 months frozen
- Cream: 7-10 days fridge, 2-4 months freezer
- Cream cheese: 3-4 weeks unopened, 1-2 weeks opened
- Dried beans: Indefinite
- Eggs: 3-6 weeks
- Flours: 6-8 months (self-rising and wheat: 4-6 months)
- Fresh fruits and vegetables: Varies (see how to save produce to extend freshness)
- Fresh poultry: 1-2 days fridge, 1 year freezer
- Fresh fish: 1-2 days fridge, 6-9 months freezer
- Fresh meat (ground or unground): 1-3 days fridge, 6-8 months freezer
- Frozen fruits and vegetables: 1 year unopened, 1 month opened in freezer
- Frozen meals: 1 year
- Ham, cured: 1 week (bone removed) fridge, 6-8 months freezer
- Herbs: 1-2 years dried whole, 2-3 years ground
- Hot dogs: 1 week fridge opened, 2 weeks fridge unopened, 6 months freezer
- Ice cream: 1-2 months opened, 2-3 months unopened
- Jam/Jelly: 6-9 months fridge opened, 1 year pantry unopened
- Juice: Pantry 6-9 months unopened, 5-7 days open in fridge
- Ketchup: 1-2 years unopened, 1 year opened
- Lunch meat: Packaged 7-10 days unopened in fridge, 2-3 months unopened in freezer, 5-6 days opened in fridge
- Mayonnaise: 1 year unopened pantry, 1 month opened fridge
- Mustard: 1-2 years unopened pantry, 1 year opened fridge
- Milk: 5-7 days after printed date but give it a sniff test
- Oatmeal: Instant, pantry 1-2 years; all others, pantry 2-3 years
- Oils: Corn, canola, peanut, olive, coconut: 1 year unopened pantry, 1 year after opening.
- Olives: 1-2 years pantry, 3-4 months opened in the fridge
- Peanut butter: Regular 1 year open/unopened; Natural 4 months open/unopened
- Pickles: 1-2 years pantry unopened, 1-2 years fridge opened
- Popcorn: Plain, indefinitely; microwaveable, unpopped 6-8 months pantry
- Rice: White, 4-5 years uncooked pantry; brown, 6-8 months uncooked pantry, cooked up to 4 days in the fridge, 1 month in a freezer
- Salad dressings: Creamy (open or unopened) 1-2 months; oil-based (open or unopened) 3-4 months
- Salsa: 1-2 months pantry unopened, 1-2 months fridge opened
- Soda: 6-9 months unopened in the fridge, 1 year unopened in a pantry
- Sour cream: 1-2 weeks unopened, 1 week opened in the fridge
- Spices: 1-2 years dried, 2-3 years ground, 4 years whole
- Sugar: Indefinitely
- Tea (bag or loose leaves): 6-12 months pantry, 1 year freezer
- Tuna: 2-5 years pantry unopened cans, 5 days opened in the fridge
- Vinegar: Indefinite
- Yogurt: 1-2 weeks unopened fridge, 1 week opened fridge, 1 month (open or unopened) freezer
Even following these general guidelines, you should always inspect food before consumption. Look to make sure there’s no visible mold or pests, and give it a sniff for freshness. And remember, when in doubt throw it out!
Note: This post first appeared on August 5, 2015. It has been revised and updated for republication.