With inflation sending grocery prices skyrocketing, the last thing anyone wants is to throw away food that has reached its expiration date. As a result, you’ve likely wondered whether you need to toss something immediately when it “expires.” Can something truly be safe to eat one day and spoiled the next?
You’re not alone if you’re unsure what the dates, numbers, and letters on food packages mean. Since there is no universal food dating system in the United States (except for infant formula and baby food), figuring out what it all means can be tricky. Keep reading to learn how to read expiration dates and better understand what those letters and numbers stand for. Spoiler alert: According to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), many food products are safe to consume past their expiration date. This is especially true if you store products in airtight food storage containers.
Types of Date Codes
Two types of date codes are used on food products. Some products are labeled with open dating, while others have use-by or sell-by dates. In many states, sell-by dates are mandatory for certain types of food, including milk, eggs, lunch meats, salad mixes, cream, yogurt, and cottage cheese. Let’s take a closer look at each type.
Open dating is the most common option, especially for non-perishable foods and canned goods. Often, this type of labeling features “Best by,” “Best before,” “Best if used ,by,” or similar phrasing followed by a date. Sometimes, a time is included too. The date/time a product is best by is entirely up to the manufacturer’s discretion. It means they will stand behind the product and assure its quality up until that date. The food isn’t unsafe after that point. It may just be past its peak in terms of flavor and overall quality.
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With open dating, you can think of the date as more of a suggestion than a rule. Use common sense, though. If you open an outdated product that looks or smells “off,” toss it. It’s better to be safe than sorry!
Use-By, Sell-By, etc. Dating
This type of dating is a bit more straightforward. Safety is also more important, but it isn’t as cut and dried as some folks think. After all, there is no real way of knowing exactly what day something will go bad.
Use By: A use-by date is the suggested date by which you should — you guessed it — consume a food product. It is not considered a safety date, except when used on baby formula containers. However, eating a few days after the date is still safe. If you decide to eat something after the use-by date, examine it first to determine its quality. When in doubt, toss it out.
Sell By: In some states, certain foods are required by law to have a “sell by” date, which is more for retailers than consumers. It isn’t a safety date, but it tells retailers when they should pull a product from its shelves. According to the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), a third of a food’s shelf life remains beyond the sell-by date. This means you can enjoy milk, eggs, and many other types of food with sell-by dates several days — even weeks — after the date on the package. Again: Use common sense.
Freeze-By: Some products also have freeze-by dates. This is most common in fresh refrigerated meat. Like the others, it is not a safety date. A freeze-by date indicates when food should be frozen to ensure peak quality.
Every once in a while, you might come across something with a pack date rather than an expiration date. It’s common to see this labeling on canned goods, spices, boxed crackers, cookies, etc. It simply refers to the date the manufacturer packaged the productnd. It isn’t intended for consumers. Manufacturers use it to track inventory and rotate stock. They also use this code to locate items when there is a recall.
Using Food Products After Their Expiration Dates
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As long as they are stored properly, most food products can be used beyond their expiration date as long as there is no apparent spoilage. Here are a few guidelines on how long past the expiration date you can safely use some common foods:
- Eggs: 3 to 5 weeks
- Milk: 1 week refrigerated, three months frozen
- Yogurt: 2 weeks refrigerated, two months frozen
- Butter: 3 months refrigerated, six months frozen
- Packaged cold cuts: 2 weeks (unopened) or five days (open) refrigerated, two months frozen
- Bacon: 2 weeks (unopened) or one week (available) refrigerated, one month frozen
- Hot dogs: 2 weeks (unopened) or one week (available) chilled, 1 to 2 months frozen
- Dried pasta and rice: 2 years
- Jams and jellies: 6 months (available) refrigerated, one year (unopened) in the pantry
- Mayonnaise: 2 months (available) refrigerated, three months (unopened) in the pantry
- Ketchup: 6 months (available) in the refrigerator, one year (unopened) in pantry
Foods purchased from the freezer section are safe indefinitely, but they won’t taste good forever. Texture and flavor break down over time,, even when frozen. Freezer storage containers are an excellent way to extend the life of your frozen foods.
In most cases, expiration dates are more of a guideline that lets you know when the foods you buy will no longer be at their peak. Check the quality of “expired” products before deciding whether to eat them or throw them away. A little bit of common sense goes a long way here.
If any spoilage is apparent, it’s best to err on caution and throw them away. However, if everything looks and smells fine, you can prevent waste and save money by eating it. You can also get the most out of your groceries and extend the life of many products by storing them in insulated drinkware, airtight food containers, etc.