Food Expiration Dates: What do they mean?

Adair P. Hoover,
Home & Garden Information Center

One of the most common food safety questions asked at the Home & Garden Information Center is “How long can food be stored before it becomes unsafe to eat?” There are different recommendations for most foods and HGIC is a great place to call or visit online when you are unsure.

Additionally, food manufacturers often label their products with dates that have determined to be ideal for the quality and safety of their specific products. Manufacturing food dates are not mandatory for most foods but are good guidelines. There are several common types of product dates and understanding the difference between them can help you make a good decision when deciding whether a food is safe to eat.  For example, there is a big difference between a “best used by date” and an “expiration date”.

The most commonly used open dates are:

  • Sell-by Date — the last recommended day of sale. It allows for home storage and use. You will find the date after the statement "sell by (a date)." Breads and baked goods may have "sell-by" dates.
  • Best if Used By (or Before) – a recommendation for best flavor or quality. It does not describe the safety.
  • Use-by Date — tells how long the product will retain top quality after you buy it. You will find this date after the statement "Use by." Some packaged goods have "use-by" dates.
  • Expiration Date — the last day the product should be used or eaten. You may find this date after the statement, "Do not use after (date)." Yeast and baking powder have expiration dates.
  • Pack Date — the date that a food was processed. Canned or packaged foods often have pack dates. This does not tell you how long the food will be good.

When referencing manufacturing dates it is important to take into consideration that quality and safety are two different things.  Safe food is simply food that will not cause illness when consumed. More specifically, food that is free of pathogens (illness-causing microorganisms); toxic chemicals and dangerous foreign physical objects. Quality describes the taste and appearance of food, including size, color, consistency and texture.

A food may have poor quality but still be safe and a food that is unsafe to eat can appear to have good quality. Ultimately, safely handling food from the time of purchase through storage plays the biggest role in how long a food can be stored. Always remember that these are guidelines, if a food is not properly handled, its storage life will be shortened. And keep in mind that the golden rule of food storage safety is “When in doubt, throw it out”

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This information is supplied with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement by the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service is implied. All recommendations are for South Carolina conditions and may not apply to other areas. Use pesticides only according to the directions on the label. All recommendations for pesticide use are for South Carolina only and were legal at the time of publication, but the status of registration and use patterns are subject to change by action of state and federal regulatory agencies. Follow all directions, precautions and restrictions that are listed.