What Food Expiration Dates Really Mean

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Food expiration dates aren’t regulated or even required. Find out what food is safe to eat regardless of the packaging date, and stop wasting your money.

This photo shoes a refrigerated package of eggs bearing a date stamp of September 23 that does not indicate whether it is for food safety

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 Food and Drug Administration (FDA) simply recommends them. The only requirement is that food sold must be “wholesome and fit for consumption.” The one exception is baby formula since its nutritional content decreases over time.

Expiration Dates Differ By State

Food expiration dates are regulated by state law, and states differ. One state may declare that milk must be sold before its “Sell-by” date, while a store just across the state line has no deadline as long as the milk isn’t spoiled.

As you may imagine, this opens the door to lobbying groups pushing for short sales periods so their industry clients make bigger profits. Since there are no uniform federal regulations controlling food expiration dates, it’s up to you to know what those packaging dates mean and how long food is safe to eat.

“Sell-By” Dates

A “sell by” date doesn’t mean the food has gone bad — it just means it’s not at peak quality, as determined by the manufacturer.

“Sell-by” dates are directions from the manufacturer to stores about how long they can display a product for sale. It is not a food safety date or a directive to the consumer.

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That doesn’t mean the food gets thrown away the day after the “sell by” date. Instead, the store might decide to use the item as an ingredient in custom-made foods, or they might donate it to a local food bank.

For example, you’ve probably never seen bananas turning black in the produce section or ground beef turning brown from oxidation in the meat cooler. Grocery stores would lose money if they tossed such foods out every time that happened, and they’re not in business to lose money. Instead, they use those imperfect foods as ingredients. Spotty bananas get used in the store bakery’s banana bread. Oxidized ground beef goes into the deli counter’s taco salad or meatloaf.

“Best By” or “Best if Used By” Dates

These dates mean exactly what they say: the product will taste best if eaten by the package date. The date has nothing to do with food safety.

Manufacturers want consumers to have good product experiences and think well of them. They use food product dating dates to indicate when something offers the best flavor. After that date, their research has told them the product will lose freshness or begin to change.

Artificial colors may fade, for instance, or liquid ingredients may separate. These dates do not necessarily indicate that the product is spoiled or a potential source of bacteria or foodborne illness.

“Use By” and “Expires After” Dates

The USDA notes that food does not necessarily become unsafe to eat after its “use-by” or “expires after” date labels.

As with “best by” dates, these deadlines are chosen by manufacturers to let consumers know the product’s look or taste is almost sure to change if the package has been opened or the food hasn’t been frozen for long-term storage. The USDA’s food safety page notes that if handled correctly and kept below 40°F, “a product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality” past this date.

How Long Food Stays Fresh (A-Z List)

The time you can safely store food depends on the storage method. For fresh foods you can’t eat in time to prevent spoilage, freezing or other methods of preserving food can prolong their life.

With proper handling and packaging (or repackaging if freezing), frozen foods are safe from bacterial spoilage indefinitely. They may not be at their peak of flavor, but they will still be safe to eat if you have stored them correctly.

Foods A-C

  • 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 a cool, dark place and indented
  • 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 the fridge, 3 months frozen
  • Cream: 7-10 days fridge, 2-4 months freezer
  • Cream cheese: 3-4 weeks unopened, 1-2 weeks opened

Foods D-G

  • Dairy products: See individual items
  • 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 (unground or ground meats): 1-3 days fridge, 6-8 months freezer
  • Frozen fruits and vegetables: 1 year unopened, 1 month opened in freezer
  • Frozen meals: 1 year
  • Ground beef: 1-3 days fridge, 6-8 months freezer

Foods H-L

  • 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

Foods M-R

  • 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
  • Pasta: Indefinitely.
  • 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

Foods S-Z

  • 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

Signs Food is Not Safe to Eat

Before supermarkets and quality dates on food packaging, people had to rely on their senses to determine if foods were safe to eat.

  • Bulging cans or jars with bulging lids indicate bacterial spoilage.
  • Mold growth, drying out, and hardening indicate time spoilage.
  • Odors, slime, and textural changes in perishable foods indicate spoilage, too.
  • Gnawed boxes, larvae, and droppings indicate household pest infestations that can also render food unsafe.

Remember, no matter what the food date labeling says, if you are in doubt, you should throw it out. Protecting your health through food safety is always more important than saving money.

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3 Comments

  1. Sylvia Hanna says:

    Very good to know! Thanks! Will be printing out this article to keep near my refrigerator!

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Great place for it, Sylvia!

  2. Karena Schaefer says:

    Thank you! This is very useful. I will be printing this out.