What to Know About Food Expiration Dates

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The average American throws away more than 400 pounds of food per person annually, much of it perfectly fine. And “best before”, “sell by” or dates without context that are slapped on packages lead have nothing to do with safety.

It’s a familiar scene in my house. My fridge is jammed, I need space, and so I purge, sorting through the jams and dressings and leftovers to determine which have expired and are, therefore, inedible. 

But it turns out those dates stamped on so many of our foodstuffs — “best before,” “sell by,” “use by” — have nothing to do with food safety. Rather, they are determined by lab tests that estimate when a food tastes its best. Most of us are unlikely to notice any difference. But the widespread misunderstanding of these dates, in tandem with government mandates that prohibit stores from selling products beyond those stamped dates, causes literal tons of food waste. A United Nations food agency study found one billion tons of food are thrown out annually —  that’s ⅓ of all the food in the world. Discover magazine determined that the average U.S. household wastes almost $2,000 annually on food waste. Most of that food goes into landfills, where it rots and produces methane, a greenhouse gas 28 times more damaging than carbon dioxide.

The Food Date Labeling Act (created in 2019 and not yet passed) aims to standardize the terminology surrounding labels. For instance, food that might decline in taste after a certain date would be labeled “Best if used by,” but if a food is unsafe after a certain date, the label would read “Use by.”

So, what can we do in our own kitchens?

  • Fruits and vegetables make up a good deal of food waste, so plan your grocery list to buy the right amount and store them properly. 
  • Use your senses! If something looks and smells edible, it likely is. That includes milk, which can often be used a week or two past its “best before” date. Sour milk becomes buttermilk, which can be used in baking. Seriously! If you're concerned about meat, call the USDA “meat and poultry” hotline at 1-888-674-6854. They take about 50,000 food safety questions a year.
  • Compost what you can, but yogurt, cheese, and spoiled meat cannot go into your backyard compost. Neither can oil and grease — put those in a separate container and toss it. 
  • Salvage food on the brink. You can cut mold off of most semi-soft or hard cheeses (but don't risk it with soft cheese). Use wilted greens and less-than-crisp veggies in soups or stir-fries. And check out Bluedot’s Q and A with a cookbook author dedicated to using what is often considered waste.

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Leslie Garrett
Leslie Garrett
Leslie Garrett is a journalist and the Editorial Director of Bluedot, Inc. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, and more. She is the author of more than 15 books, including The Virtuous Consumer, a book on living more sustainably. Leslie lives most of the year in Canada with her husband, three children, three dogs and three cats. She is building a home on Martha's Vineyard.
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39 COMMENTS

  1. I worked for the USDA in the 80’s. I learned this information way back then. It’s so nice to see this in print as my kids think that I’m crazy when I mention these things. They pitch so much food away! It’s unreal! They swear that I’m going to poison everyone! I haven’t yet and I’ve been around a long time!

    • So much of food waste is a product of misunderstood info about expiration dates, “best before”, “sell by”, and so on. While there are proposals for legislation to clarify this info, many consumers remain confused and err on the side of caution. Glad you’re spreading the word!

    • Thanks for your question. Seafood gives us perhaps the narrowest window in which to eat it. Experts say, thawed, fish needs to be consumed within 1 – 2 days, 3 at the absolute outside. Once cooked, it can last up to four days. But always use your senses. If it smells off, or if it’s texture has changed (it’s become slimier, for instance), don’t consume it. Better safe than sick.

    • Good question! Eggs can still be consumed after their “best before” dates, which typically refer to taste more than safety. That said, eggs are susceptible to salmonella. To determine whether your eggs are still good, try this test: Drop your egg carefully into a bowl of water. A good egg will sink to the bottom. A bad egg will float.

      • We buy from chicken lady we don’t wash them until
        We are ready to eat them., also we don’t refrigerate them. Have had no problems.

  2. Question: I boiled eggs, shut off electricity & accidentally left them in the water on the stove for 2days. I put them in fridge . Are they ok to eat?
    Thank you

  3. I moved my elderly mother into my house in 2009. I was cleaning out her refrigerator and found a “best by” date of 1975. I tossed it but did I do the right thing?

    • I am 75, and have lived alone since January 2022, so I don’t consume as much food. On Saturday I ate some frozen spiced apples that I had repackaged from 2018 into refrigerated portions. Certainly was good with instant oatmeal 🥣. Nothing was compromised, no smell 👃🏽 no funky taste. Just good 👍

  4. I clean out all my wilted fruits & veggies & put them on the rack inside my roaster pan. I put a nice roast or turkey on the bed of nature & slow cook. Not only does it add flavor to your meat, it also catches & absorbs some unwanted excess fat. I love squeezing oranges over my meat & then cook it with the rinds.

  5. That is great info. I work with Foodbank and some people dont understand those labels. I will copy that so I can print out for clients so they hv a better understanding of labels. Thk u very much!

  6. Thanks for sharing this information! What about cake mixes. Someone said, you could get sick if fixed them after the expiration date! Is this true?

  7. I used to go out to the meat house and cut mold off of a slab of ham. Never killed is. My mIL used to keep eggs in cartons on top her dresser for months. Never got sick. When my grandma died she had home canned food canned in jars for over ten yrs. You can tell by looking at it or smell if good or bad never killed us. Canned food my mother and grandmother used canned food as long as the cans was dinged up. It’s all in what you believe and go by looks or taste. And for the lady that hard cooked eggs left out in pan for two days. Yes they will be good. Think of this at Easter you cook eggs and color and kids keep them in there baskets for maybe a week. If so I peel them and make deviled eggs. Hasn’t killed us yet. Now if it’s hot in your house and you let some out then I’d test it first. The only way I lay meat out if your house is hot is put it in the sink and let thaw until supper time to cook it or I put ice cold water in sink with ice cubes

    • Correction the canned foods if the cans was dinged do not eat but if there not it should be good. We have a few stores around here if there’s a train wreck or tractor trailer wreck they go get the food that is spiled and sell it. I live in Pennsylvania
      Like I said we have never gotten sick over older food. People around here get more food poisoning from eating at restaurants

    • I found peanut butter in our Emergency Food storage, opened it up and it had gone rancid. It was a couple years old. So, personally I would be careful with nut butters.

  8. I have found on cans that if the edges are bent not to buy it but if the ends are okay but bend in the middle they are okay. Is this okay or do I need be more careful. I would appreciate your comment. THANK YOU AND HAPPY BIRTHDAY JESUS AND HAPPY NEW YEAR TO YOU AND YOURS. MAY GOD BLESS YA’LL.

    • I always use common sense at home, if it looks good, smells and taste good then it’s edible. I actually look for mark downs in the store especially things with best by labels— these are mere suggestions, generally nothing wrong with the food. I often buy for atleast 50-60% off regular price. I know friends that literally throw thousands of dollars away each year because of the dates on food. I don’t like to waste and I love saving $ where I can.

  9. 😆 I just cleaned out my cabinet. Some can and not food dated back to 2022 and 2023. I was wondering about the 2023 started to keep it. SMH

  10. I rarely pay any attention to these dates on the largest majority of the things I eat. Leftovers is a completely different thing! But opening a can or jar of something that is long expired… I’ve eaten things 4 years outdated with NO ILL EFFECTS! Use your own good judgment and some COMMON SENSE (which there seems to be lacking in the world today), and you won’t have any issues. Come on,,,what did they do 150 years ago before pasteurization and all of these crazy “preservatives” were heard of??? And there were nowhere near the illnesses and sickness there is today! It’s not “rocket science” folks!

  11. Yeah, I don’t necessarily go by “sell by, or best by” date. They aren’t always right. I put something on Facebook one time, years ago,, about it. An argument ensued between my daughter, my sister, & a few others, who argued with me about it. I mean “an argument,” they got mad. I did not back down!! My food, my taste, my stomach, & my favorite one, “my body, my choice,” as in if I want to take a chance on it!! (Not on the “my body, my choice” abortion issue.)

  12. My Granny always said, “Waste not, want not.” I do whatever I can to not waste anything. If refrigerated food goes bad, I blend in my food processor for compost (breaks down more quickly). Of course, not meats or dairy.

    If the canned foods have expired, I check for obvious signs of spoilage like bulging ends of the cans. If boxed my nose helps me tell if contents are stale. For example, recently bread crumbs….obviously stale. The birds have been thrilled to get these treats.

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