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Food Expiration Dates

Written By: Paul

Food Expiration Date
Last Updated on March 10, 2023

In a world where we're constantly on the lookout for what's good for us, you know that we'll be looking at the expiration date or best-by date on our food products. Some of you might wonder if you can eat food after the expiration date has expired. 

The short answer is yes. 

In this article, we'll talk about the meaning of food expiration dates, when you can still eat your food, and when you should toss it away.

What Is a Food Expiration Date

The United States has no standard dating system for food expiration dates, and the Federal government doesn't require it except for infant formula. This issue can lead to a lot of confusion regarding the dates on food and whether or not they're still safe for you to eat. 

Some people mistakenly believe that once food has passed the label's date, they must promptly discard it. But that's simply not true. Instead, the Federal government encourages you to inspect your food before discarding it to avoid food waste.

food expiration dates

Expiration dates can be applied voluntarily by meat, poultry, and dairy manufacturers in compliance with the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). These terms are that manufacturers must use labels in a truthful and not misleading fashion, have a calendar date with the month and year, and indicate 'best-by.'

In almost all cases, food expiration dates are meant to inform you about the freshness of your food and not about whether or not the food is spoiled and may harm you.

What Does the Date On Your Food Mean?

You'll find different food expiration labels on your food. Here's a quick rundown of what those labels mean:

  • Best if used by/before relates to the best quality and not whether the food is spoiled.
  • Sell-by dates are for inventory management and how long food should remain on shelves.
  • Use-by is the last date to maintain the quality of the item. It is not a safety date, except for infant food.
  • Freeze-by is when you should freeze food to maintain quality.

In all these circumstances, you can eat food after the expiration date. In most cases, except with infant food, the date labels on your food reference quality or inventory management, and not spoilage.

You can still eat your food after the expiration date has passed. 

The USDA reports that 31% of food loss happens at the retail and consumer levels when stores and customers throw away perfectly nutritious food.

This food waste can lead to consumable products being thrown away instead of going to families in need or causing families in need to throw food away out of fear. The USDA has been educating people on proper food handling, storing, and when to throw their food away to curb that.

General Guidelines For Expired Food

With the different expiration dates explained, there are some general guidelines that you can follow to help you decide which food to keep and which food to throw away.

Best-By Date

This date is when your food may start to lose its best flavor. At this point, you can continue to use the product. Be wary of anything where the packaging has been compromised, such as dented cans or holes in bags.

Sell-By Date

This is essentially an inventory management tool. The sell-by date is when the stores know to remove an item from the shelves. At that point, the food goes into the trash. This practice is unfortunate because most of these items will last several days, if not several weeks, after the date has passed. 

Milk and eggs are an example of this. Milk is good for an additional week after the sell-by date, and eggs can last several weeks as long as they're intact.

Use-By Date

Use-by is similar to best-by in that it's a date manufacturers assign food. It has nothing to do with whether or not the food is spoiled. Instead, it only references the food quality, which may diminish after the date has passed.

If your food still looks, smells, and tastes good, it's suitable for eating.

Freeze-By Date

Some manufacturers will place this date on their food to encourage consumers to freeze items to maintain their freshness. 

Once an item has been frozen, it can last almost indefinitely without spoiling. The only drawback to freezing is that the process can sometimes jeopardize food quality and cause its taste to be diminished.

How Many Days Past the Expiration Date Is It

When deciding which foods you should keep past their expiration dates and which foods you should toss, you'll want to use a little common sense judgment. 

If the food in question is shelf-stable, such as tortillas, a box of crackers, or a can of soup, you probably don't need to throw it away. Most of these items will last indefinitely; it's just the quality of the food that may start to degrade over time. 

Canned items will remain good for several years. What you need to watch out for are signs of the can being damaged, dented, rusting, or the sides swelling out. In those instances, you should throw them away because those are signs that the can has been compromised and bacteria has gotten inside. 

Other foods are trickier and will require that you spend some time inspecting them. Take care with items such as meat, poultry, or fresh produce. These are the items most likely to spoil if you mishandle them.

Pay attention to your temperature controls and don't leave food out for more than two hours. This practice can lead to your food reaching room temperature, which is ideal for the growth of many bacteria that cause foodborne illnesses.

Inspect Your Food

If you have doubts about the spoilage of your food, perform a quick inspection. Food that's become spoiled will often change color, scent, and texture. Meat may lose its color, become slimy, or have an off-scent. If any of those things are happening, throw it out.

But if your food still looks, smells, and appears of good quality, it's probably safe to eat. If you're concerned or in doubt about a particular food item, you can utilize this government website: Foodkeeper. It's an application that tracks different foods and their appropriate handling.

A significant amount of food goes to waste in the United States, and by doing your part not to throw out wholesome food, you're keeping good food out of landfills. You'll also be able to reduce your grocery bill by not throwing out food and having to purchase it all over again!

inspecting food

Does Freezing Affect the Expiration Date?

In most situations, freezing your food will increase its lifespan and overall quality. By freezing your food products, you'll reduce the possibility of bacterial growth to virtually zero. 

While freezing your food to avoid spoilage is a great idea, it can lessen the taste quality of your food if done for a long time. This is what most people mean when referring to 'freezer burn.'

 However, that doesn't mean you should throw it out! If your food is suffering from freezer burn, consider using it in a dish with plenty of spices. This is an excellent option for products like beef or chicken, which you can use in stews, chilies, or tacos.

How To Avoid Wasting Food

You can almost always eat food after it's passed its expiration date. Most foodborne illnesses aren't from eating expired food but food that wasn't stored properly and allowed bacteria to flourish.

Freezing food is an effective way to ensure that bacteria can't flourish in your food. So if there's a perishable item that you don't plan to eat right away, freeze it! This method will buy you plenty of time before you consume it. You can freeze proteins, vegetables, some fruits, bread, milk, and even cheese.

When placed in water or wrapped in damp wash clothes, some vegetables can last longer in the refrigerator and extend their shelf life. This method would allow you to save more perishables for extended periods.

Make sure to pack and refrigerate leftovers promptly so they don't spoil, and you'll be able to use them later. In most circumstances, you'll want to use leftovers within seven days. After that, you should discard them for safety purposes.

Before You Go

Many people are worried about food expiration dates, and with good reason! It can be scary to see 'use-by' on your products and have to consider whether or not it will get you sick if you eat it afterward. 

Unfortunately, there needs to be more clarity surrounding what they mean because the usage is relatively arbitrary. What it boils down to for you is that as long as your food isn't visibly spoiled, it's probably fine.

Use your common sense, and check for things like discoloration, off-smells, or changes in texture. Remember that fresh foods won't last as long as shelf-stable items, and when in doubt? Throw it out. There's no reason to make yourself sick if you don't have to.


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Hi, I'm Paul. Welcome to my website! I, along with my cronies, are leveraging our years of working in the food industry to review meal and drink delivery services. We review. You eat happily ever after.

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