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Get the facts about food expiration dates

A woman stands in front of an open fridge and looks at a jar.

Feb. 16, 2023—You'd think it would be easy to tell if the food in your pantry is still safe to eat—just look at the date on the package. But it's not that simple.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), about 20% of food waste in the home comes from confusion about the dates on packaged food. Knowing what the dates on your food labels really mean can help you avoid waste and save money on groceries.

It's about quality

With the cost of food rising, do you really have to discard food that's past the date on the label? Maybe not. Those dates have nothing to do with whether the food will be safe to eat. They tell you when your food item might lose flavor or quality.

Except for infant formula, the dates on food products aren't regulated by the government. The food manufacturing industry chooses the dates—and the terms—they place on their labels. Common terms include:

  • Best if used by. This label means what it says: The food's taste and quality will be best if you use it by the date on the label. FDA is supporting the food industry in making this label the standard term.
  • Best by. The flavor or quality may not be as good after this date. But you don't need to empty your pantry—the food item should be safe to eat if it has been stored and handled properly.
  • EXP. You might see this on perishable items such as eggs. This label tells stores how long they should sell a food item, rather than indicating food safety.
  • Sell by. It's usually added by manufacturers to tell store clerks how long an item has been sitting on the shelf. It's not related to either food quality or safety. These labels are often used on eggs, dairy or meat. They may be required by state regulations rather than the federal government.
  • Use by. After this date, your food item is no longer at its peak quality—but that doesn't mean you can't eat it, as long as it has been stored and used safely. There is one important exception. Infant formula is the only product required by FDA to have a "Use by" date. After that, the product is not considered safe and should be thrown out.

Use your eyes and nose

The date on the label doesn't mean your food has gone bad. But that doesn't always mean it is safe to eat, either. In fact, food may go bad before the date on the label. So, if you can't just go by a label, what can you do?

Never taste food to see if it's safe. Instead, check the old-fashioned way: Look at the food item or packaging and smell it to see if it seems off, even if it hasn't hit its "best by" or "use by" date. More red flags:

  • Cans that are rusted or burst open.
  • Items that haven't been used or stored safely.
  • Leaks or holes in food packaging.

The rule of thumb is that if something seems wrong, you shouldn't eat it. Otherwise, it's generally safe to use food that's past the "best by" or "use by" date.

Still, food doesn't last forever. And you may not always be able to see or smell bacteria that could make you sick. Storing food safely can help it last longer—and prevent food poisoning.

Wondering how long you can really keep that carton of milk? Check out our cold storage safety infographic for more details.


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