Can You Count on Food Expiration Dates?

Can You Count on Food Expiration Dates?

Food Expiration Dates, what do they mean? And are they reliable? Many people do think so and I know that it is taught in school curriculums that children learn to double check labels as to not eat “spoiled” foods. I recently experienced this firsthand when my granddaughters wanted to check the cottage cheese carton before having some. They said, “we are close to the date of expiration”and “we don’t want to eat any.” They smelled it but decided they would not eat it. I was a little surprised at their quick assessment and also at the realization that just maybe I would have something that’s not healthy in my refrigerator!

First, the only items required by law to be labeled with dates are Infant Formulas, and some Baby Foods. As well, some states require taking dairy foods from store shelves on the expiration dates.

The “sell by” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. In other words, you should sell the food before the date expires. This is basically a guide for retailers to let them know when to pull the foods. But, it is not mandatory, so the advice to consumers is, yes, check the dates, and if needed, pull a fresher product from the back. The real issue is not whether or not the food is about to spoil; but rather an issue of quality, as freshness, taste, and consistency. Many experts feel that this is the last possible date that the product is at its highest quality.

One other date that you may be interested in is the “Born On” date. This is the date of manufacture, and recently has been applied to beer products. It is actually a three month time period, and is said to have the beer go sub-par after that time period.

One last date is the “Pack date” which you can find on canned products or packaged goods. But, this can be tricky, and in fact can be in code. The date can be in a month-day-year format or the manufacturer can choose to use the Julian calendar. January would be 001-0031, and December would be 334-365.

So, how long are foods satisfactory to eat? Here are some Food Expiration Dates rules to remember:

  • Milk and Milk Products. Usually fine until 1 week after the sell date.
  • Eggs. Acceptable for 3-5 weeks after you bring them home.
  • Fresh Seafood and Poultry. Cook or freeze within a day or two.
  • Beef and Pork. Cook or freeze within 3-5 days.
  • Canned Food Products. As Tomatoes are acidic and tomato sauce, can keep up to 18 months. Whereas, low acid foods, such as green beans, can last up to five years. Always keep canned foods in a cool, dry place for storage. Obvious signs of difficulty with canned products would be bulging cans with bacteria growth, no matter what the expiration date.

Some Food Safety Tips from the U S Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Services:

  • Purchase the food before the date expires.
  • If perishable, take the food home immediately after purchase and refrigerate it promptly.
  • Freeze foods if you cannot use it in the allotted time limit.
  • Once frozen, it does not matter if the date expires because the foods will keep indefinitely.
  • Follow all handling recommendations on packages. As, “keep closed until ready to use,” or “wrap all meat products in clean, dry packaging if planning to freeze.”

More information to come regarding safe temperatures for food using government guidelines!


Rita Larsen Registered Dietitian at Elite Sports Clubs

Written by Rita Larsen, RDN, CD; Elite Sports Clubs Nutrition Educator & Diet Counselor

Rita is certified in Positive Psychology, University of Penn; has a BS in Dietetics from Kansas State University; and an Internship and Masters at the Indiana University Medical Center.

Get a free nutrition consultation!

This information is not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease. All material in this article is provided for educational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any diet, exercise, or other health program.

Got something to add? Leave a comment!

One thought on “Can You Count on Food Expiration Dates?”

Comments are closed.