Here’s a staggering statistic: roughly a third of all food produced may get wasted or lost each year.
Some of this waste comes from restaurants, grocers and manufacturers, but people like you and me are the largest source. A U.S. family of four loses about $1,500 a year on wasted food. That’s money down the drain—or rather, in a landfill.
We toss food out for many reasons, but confusion about expiration dates is one of the biggest. With a dizzying array of phrases like “sell by,” “best if used by,” “best before,” “freeze by,” “use by,” and so many more, it’s no surprise many of us are so confused.
It’s logical to believe all these date labels are there for safety reasons, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) doesn’t regulate them. They come from food producers, which explains why there are so many different terms thrown around.
“Infant formula and some baby foods are federally regulated for safety concerns,” said Susan Welter, a registered dietitian with Banner Health. However, for most other foods, the dates listed on products by food manufacturers are meant to indicate ‘best quality’ of the food.”
No one wants to play Russian roulette with their digestive system or inadvertently throw away food before its prime. If expiration dates puzzle you, read on to understand what each label means and cut down on unnecessary food waste.
Decoding food date terms
Since there is no federal standard about food product dates, companies use various terms that can mean the same or similar things. The next time you question your household goods refer to this cheat sheet for help.
“Best by,” “best if used by” and “use by”
These terms suggest when the food item will be at its best quality if unopened. You’ll often see “best by” and “best before” on shelf-stable products, such as condiments, dry goods and canned goods.
“According to the USDA, these foods are often still safe to eat beyond that date as long as the product has been stored properly,” Welter said.
“Sell by” or “pull by”
This term indicates when the retailer (e.g., grocery store) must sell the product. You’ll often see sell by dates on perishable foods like meat, seafood, eggs and dairy.
“These products are generally safe to eat a few days after the sell-by date as long as they are properly stored within safe temperature zones,” Welter said.
According to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service:
- Milk is good for about a week after the sell by date.
- Eggs can keep for several weeks beyond the sell by date.
- Chicken, turkey, fish and meats should be cooked or frozen within two days.
This term is typically for perishable items like meat and indicates the window to preserve peak quality and freshness. Freezing food can extend the shelf life—many for up to a year.
To learn more about freezing and defrosting tips, check out “A Guide to Freezing (and Defrosting) Food.”
This is used for perishable baked goods. Freshness is no longer guaranteed past the expiration date, but the food may still be edible.
Packed on or pack date
This indicates when something was packed, canned or sealed. It’s not generally meant for consumers but for manufacturers and retailers to track and rotate stock and pull items in case of a recall.
How to tell if your food has gone bad or spoiled
Beyond understanding and heeding food labels, Welter urges people to use their senses.
“Look for things like visible mold or discoloration, solid chunks in milk, funky smells and changes in texture,” Welter said. “When in doubt, throw it out.”
Tips to ensure your food is safe to eat
Welter shared some ways you can help prevent food waste and ensure your food is safe to eat:
- Don’t buy more food than you need. Buy only non-perishable items in bulk, such as canned or packaged goods.
- Plan your meals and create a shopping list. Double-check your refrigerator, freezer and pantry before shopping to avoid buying what you already have at home. Whatever you do, avoid impulse shopping. Stick to the list!
- Check your refrigerator/freezer settings. Ensure your refrigerator is at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below. Your freezer should be at 0 degrees Fahrenheit or below.
- Practice first in, first out. When you unpack groceries, place the newer items behind the older ones so they get used first.
- Properly store food:
- Use or freeze fresh meat and fish within two days of purchasing and keep them in original packaging.
- Store high-acid canned food, such as tomatoes, grapefruit and pineapple, at room temperature for 12 to 18 months (about one and a half years).
- Store low-acid canned food, such as meat, poultry, fish and most vegetables, for two to five years.
- Toss out cans that are dented or bulging.
- Once you open a package of bread, use it within five to seven days if left on the counter. Otherwise, freeze it.
- Once you open packages of dried goods, such as rice and flour, store them in an airtight container at room temperature. They typically can be kept from one month to one year. You can label the container with the date you opened it to help track it.
- Download or subscribe. You can subscribe to Food Safety News for daily news and current information regarding food safety, including recalls. In addition, you can download free apps like “Is My Food Safe” and “FoodKeeper” to learn how to store foods and help reduce your risk of food poisoning.
Although food product dates can be a bit confusing, understanding them can help you get the most out of your grocery purchases, save you money and prevent food waste.