What Do Food Expiration Dates Really Mean

Have you ever noticed that food expiration dates are worded differently on products? The wording makes a big difference and typically does not indicate safety. The different text has various meanings but doesn't mean you should automatically throw away the food.

Sell By Date

This date indicates when the store needs to remove it from their shelves, aka when they should sell it by. Often, if the items have been stored correctly, they are safe and flavorful enough to eat a few days after this date.

Best If Used By Date

This date indicates the quality of the product, not safety. It comes from the manufacturer and states the point that the product is expected to lose freshness and optimal quality.

Expiration Date

Very similar to best if used by date, again indicates quality, not safety. Indicates after this time that the taste, quality, and texture of the product will decline.

Quick Guide to Food Shelf Life

Typical labeling doesn't tell you when food is safe or not. To know that, we’ve put together a chart of some common foods (make sure to keep it handy) to give you an idea of what is no longer safe and when. Remember that almost any food can be frozen to preserve it safely. The exception being eggs in shells and canned foods, which should not be frozen.

Product Shelf Life Notes
Milk 2-3 days after use by date Store in coldest back of the fridge
Butter 2-3 weeks from use by date
Eggs 3-5 weeks from date purchased Store in coldest back of the fridge
Ground Meat 3-4 days from date purchased Store in coldest back of the fridge
Pre-Cooked Poultry 3-4 days from date purchased Store in coldest back of the fridge
Fish 1-2 days from date purchased Store in coldest back of the fridge
Lunch Meat 2-3 weeks unopened/3-4 days opened
Dry Pasta 1-2 years As long as not exposed to temps over 90 degrees or under freezing
Canned Fruits 1-2 years As long as not exposed to temps over 90 degrees or under freezing
Canned Vegetables 1-2 years As long as not exposed to temps over 90 degrees or under freezing

Kay Day - Nov 27, 2017
Kay Day continued from previous comment

Dried egg whites Unopened dried egg products and egg white Refrigeration is not required unless
solids can be stored at room temperature reconstituted.
as long as they are kept cool and dry.
After opening, store in the refrigerator.

Rice and dried pasta 2 years After cooking, 3-4 days in the

If the formatting on this failed, go to fsis.usda.gov/...food-product-dating
Kay Day - Nov 27, 2017
I just answered my own question by checking the USDA website:

Canned ham (shelf-stable) 2 to 5 years 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator

Low-acid canned goods. Examples: 2 to 5 years 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator
canned meat and poultry, stews,
soups (except tomato), spaghetti
(noodle and pasta) products,
potatoes, corn, carrots, spinach,
beans, beets, peas, and pumpkin.

High-acid canned goods. Examples: 12 to 18 months 5 to 7 days in the refrigerator
juices (tomato, orange, lemon, lime,
and grapefruit); tomatoes; grapefruit,
pineapple, apples and apple products,
mixed fruit, peaches, pears, plums,
all berries, pickles, sauerkraut, and
foods treated with vinegar-based
sauces or dressings like German
potato salad and sauerbraten.

Home canned foods 12 months 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator
Before using, boil 10 minutes
for high-acid foods;
20 minutes for low-acid foods.

Jerky, commercially packaged 12 months N/A

Jerky, home-dried 1 to 2 months N/A

Hard/dry sausage 6 weeks in pantry 3 weeks refrigerated, or until it no
longer smells or tastes good.

USDA Dried Egg Mix Store below 50 °F, Refrigerate after opening.
preferably Use within 7-10 days
refrigerated, Use reconstituted egg mix
for 12 to 15 months. immediately or refrigerate and
use within one hour.
continued next comment
Kay Day - Nov 27, 2017
I lived in a small Missouri town that had a "Dutch" store. They sold canned goods that were past the expiration date, and they had copies of USDA information similar to what you have shown here. I have searched the USDA website and cannot find the reference. Do you have it?
Scott Fletcher - Nov 27, 2017
THANK YOU!....i take care of my Mother ...visit each day...and finally I know what to do with all this canned frozen and refrigerated food.
Dena Holland - Nov 27, 2017
Diana Dominick i believe most loses its taste.. some break down from the consistency of what they're supposed to be. I wouldn't trust acidic canned items. I smell the open can .. if it smells tinny i discard. If can is bulging discard don't open. Frozen food i findb loses it's taste and or gets freeser burn.. veg fruit meat breads. The freezer and fridge coolness us very drying.
Anyone else know ? :)
Dena Holland - Nov 27, 2017
Thank you very much. Hated throwing canned and boxed food too early.
Mary Cristy - Nov 26, 2017
Judy Johnson - Nov 26, 2017
Dianne Cassady, because it won't go bad in the pantry. It will keep for years.
Cindy Quinn - Nov 26, 2017
I learned in Culinary School that freezing slows the aging process but does not stop it. Remember this, cheese can be frozen if shredded, blocks do not freeze well. Milk can be froze but it requires a long thawing process and you must shake gently to mix and keep it mixed. Fruit can be froze but only if you are using them for blending. I freeze all my fruit and use them for ice cubes. I don't mind them getting mushy. Melons , cherries, strawberries are my ice cubes all other are for smoothies. You can also freeze yogurt for smoothies or if you eat them frozen otherwise they separate.
Carol Savournin - Nov 26, 2017
Do NOT freeze dry pasta ... you are exposing it to moisture (yes ... in the freezer) and will only hasten it's degradation. If you buy a large amount, vacuum seal it to keep it from being exposed to the moisture in the air. Very little dry food becomes "poisonous" if it is only slightly out of date. Exposure to moisture (humidity, leakage, etc) is what will encourage mold, mildew and spoilage that might make you ill.
Dana Bobalik - Nov 26, 2017
I know some people are going to cringe about this, but I did actual research on this topic... i really do not have food left around that has been opened or cooked, so i never have to worry about the refrigerated stuff.... but...

I have since learned living with LDS people, they have to store enough food and water for one year, but the problem is, they were not rotating the items... so... i researched from several websites what had to be thrown out and what could be used. Obviously the items which were dated best if used by 1998...had to go!! And they did!!!

But canned items can be used for up to five years from the date on the can, and i have used items through that five year date and i have never gotten sick and obviously have not died. I could not see throwing away the huge amount of canned and dried goods that were within that time frame. However, very acidic items such as tomatoes, tomato products, pickled items, and meat related items should not be used more than three years after the date. But veggies and beans can go for five years. Also differentiate between "best if used by" that is not an expiration date, but what the company feels would be freshest for their product.
Deirdre Johnson - Nov 26, 2017
Forgive me for this one: there are a lot of things on the store shelves, that aren't food items, but they do have an "expiry date." (I also thought this was funny, but had to contain myself.)
I pulled a package of paper towels out of my "reserve," to put on the empty rack in the kitchen, and the visitor I had that day, was one of these people who claims they do everything right, and everyone else is wrong--I tend to ignore that.

She took the paper towels out of my hand, and read the "expiry date", and promptly told me: "These are no good. You can't use these."
I asked her why not, and she said: "Well, they're past the expiry date!"

I asked her to explain that, and then I told her: "Think about what you just said: what is there in paper towels, that could spoil, and render it useless?"

"Well, I don't know, but why else would they put the date on there?"

I told her: haven't you ever been in the Store, when there's someone re-stocking the shelves while you're getting groceries?"
She admitted she did, and then I asked her if she remembered how they did it.

She said they pulled the ones that were on the shelf to the front, and put the new ones that just arrived, in the back. I said:

"Right. What they were doing, was revolving the inventory, so that nothing stays on the shelves 'forever.' Besides which, the company might change the design of the packaging--it's the same thing, but with a different look."

She didn't know that, but admitted that she was about to throw out half a box of macaroni, that was a week past its "expiry date," and this was someone who's on a fixed budget, and could ill afford wasting anything.
Dorothy Sellers - Nov 26, 2017
And to add to this...FROZEN DOES NOT MEAN FOREVER!!!
Carolyn Wells - Nov 26, 2017
Why can we mot make a copy of this info regarding expiration dates, etc, it has come great info in it!
dianne cassady - Nov 26, 2017
Why not freeze dry pasta