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The Truth About Expiration Dates

If you look on almost any item you buy at the grocery store, you’ll find a little date stamped somewhere. Sometimes it’s called Best Before or Sell By, while sometimes it’s something else entirely. What this means to many of us is that, once this date passes, the product is no longer fresh and will start to spoil soon, if it hasn’t already. It’s why they all tend to get lumped together as expiration dates. What do they really mean, though? Are we wasting a ton of food diligently tossing out “expired” milk or other foods, because an arbitrary number tell us to, when they’re actually fine? Or, are these dates really protecting us from getting sick? Like most things with our health and food, the answer’s a little more complex than a simple yes or no.

Different Dates, Different Names

While some may call any date they see on a product the Expiration Date, the label could mean something different. That distinction can have a massive effect on how important or relevant the date is to the expiration or freshness of an item.

Best Before or Best If Used By Date

For example, the Best Before date (sometimes Best If Used By) is generally an advisory date. In other words, it’s a suggestion that’s not really related to whether the product is spoiled or will make you sick. What it’s actually saying is that, by this date, the product may not have the best flavor or texture you could otherwise expect. The same can largely be said for the Use By date, which is a manufacturer’s set date for when the product is at its estimated best quality before beginning to decline.

Sell By Date

What about the Sell By date? This is less important for the consumer and more for the store. Instead of identifying freshness and spoilage, the Sell By date tells the grocery store or retailer when an item should be pulled from the shelves since it no longer represents the quality the manufacturer wants. This date is worth paying attention to while you’re grocery shopping because you don’t want to buy a product after it’s passed. If you’re paying for a food, you want it to be as fresh as possible, especially if you’re not using it that day. But, if you’ve already purchased the item and the Sell By date has passed in your pantry or refrigerator, it’s probably still okay to eat.

Are Expiration Dates Important?

When it comes to Expiration dates, a bigger question still lingers. Are they actually important? The truth is that the federal government doesn’t mandate expiration dates for foods except for very specific examples (more on that later). Instead, dates speak more to the freshness and quality of the food, and not to safety of them. If you’ve properly stored a food and the date has passed, it’s still likely okay to eat. More important than the date listed on the outside are the signs of spoilage on the product.

If you’ve properly stored a food and the date has passed, it’s still likely okay to eat.

Depending on the how it was stored and other factors, a product can even begin to spoil before the Expiration Date has passed. For that reason, you should be vigilant of signs that food is starting to turn, regardless of the date. If the food is giving off a bad or unusual odor, has started to taste like it’s spoiled, or the texture has started to change (think slimy or mushy), it has likely spoiled or is beginning to spoil. While the USDA notes that you likely won’t get sick from eating spoiled food (pathogenic bacteria, not spoilage bacteria, are what cause illness), it’s still unpleasant to eat and probably not worth eating. You can find more specific timelines for food freshness, but as long as you’re keeping an eye out for the signs of spoilage, you should be in the clear.

Don’t get us wrong, we’re not saying there is absolutely no value in the dates you find on food. They can be a great indication of its freshness and help you decide which item to get. For example, if you’re looking at two gallons of milk and one is two days from the Expiration Date and the other is five, go with the fresher milk. Unless you’re going to drink a gallon quickly, the second gallon will stay fresh in your fridge longer. The problem with these dates is when they’re treated as a hard deadline, creating a real problem of food waste. It’s estimated that we waste between 30 and 40 percent of food in the United States, and misunderstanding date labels like Use By is part of that problem.

What Foods Are Expiration Dates Important for?

There are a few foods for which the Expiration Date or Use By date are somewhat important, though for different reasons.

Baby Formula

The only food item that the federal government mandates a Use By date is baby formula, and for a good reason. By requiring Use By dates, consumers can ensure that the formula is fresh enough that it properly contains all the nutrients that a baby needs to be healthy. The manufacturer, packer, or distributor decides the date based on research into, tests on, and analysis into the product’s shelf life, stability, handling, and storage of the formula, along with other factors. Do not use baby formula that has passed the Use By date.

Eggs

While not formally regulated by the federal government, many states require that eggs carry some form of Use By date or Expiration Date. If an egg carton has the USDA grade shield on it, that means that it must display a pack date — the day the eggs were washed, graded, and put in the carton — represented by a three-digit code. This code corresponds with a day of the year, starting with 001 for January 1 and running to 365 for December 31. Generally, you can use eggs three to five weeks after purchasing them, even if it passes a Use By date. The old trick of floating eggs in water can indicate that the eggs are old, but they may still be good. Simply crack the egg in a bowl to see if it’s giving off a foul smell or looks off.

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For a long time, expiration dates have controlled what foods many of us thought was safe to eat, and that’s entirely reasonable. But when you consider the amount of food waste that’s been created as a result, maybe a rebrand is in order for the majority of these dates. Instead of an Expiration Date or a Use By date, maybe it’s better to consider these dates to be Peak Freshness dates. While the food won’t immediately go bad by this day, its quality may start to decline, so you’ll want to use it sooner rather than later. Beyond that, as long as you’re watching for the signs of spoilage in your food, you should be safe with the food you eat.