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Food Date Stamps Explained

Confusion over best-by and expiration dates can leave you feeling like you’re either risking food poisoning or throwing away perfectly edible food—and money. Use this guide to clear things up and empower you to make the most of your food and your budget.

Who determines what labels go on what foods?

Believe it or not, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t require expiration dates to be printed on food packaging. (The exception is infant formula, which is covered a little later.) Some state laws, local organizations, and food production associations do require expiration dates be put on food labels. This means that, for the most part, manufacturers decide the date and phrasing of food date labels.

The most common reason for food date stamps is to tell consumers and retailers until what date they can expect the product to maintain its advertised quality. The key here is that almost all food date labels indicate food quality and not food safety. To determine these quality dates, manufacturers consider the length of time and temperature at which the food is held during distribution and sale, the characteristics of the food, and the type of packaging.

With all of that said, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) does require that food labels adhere to specific formatting depending on the type of food: for meat, poultry, and egg products the date is listed “month/day”; for shelf-stable and frozen products, the year must also be included.

The different terms

Because there is no single entity regulating food date labels, they can be termed however the manufacturer pleases, as long as it’s not intentionally misleading. Below are several common terms, along with an explanation of what they mean.

  • Best (if Used) By/Before: Indicates when a product will be at peak flavor or quality. It’s not a safety date.
  • Use By/Before: Same as above except when used on infant formula. In that case, expired formula should not be used.
  • Sell By/Before: Informs the store how long to display the product for inventory management and quality guarantee. It’s not a safety date.
  • Freeze By: Indicates when to freeze a food to maintain peak quality. It’s not a safety date.

Dating infant formula

FDS regulations require a use-by date on the product label of infant formula. This date ensures the formula contains the described quantity of each nutrient on the label. It also ensures a level of formula quality that allows it to pass through an ordinary bottle nipple. All important things when feeding babies!

Canned goods

There are a few situations when canned food should be discarded, regardless of food date labels: if a can is dented, rusted, punctured, or swollen. Canned foods with high acid content—like tomatoes and fruits—will maintain their quality for 12 to 18 months. Low-acid canned foods will last for even longer: two to five years.

What about donating food after the food date passes?

While the quality of the products may deteriorate after the listed date, the food should still be wholesome if not showing signs of spoilage. Food banks and other charitable organizations should accept these foods and will conduct their own evaluation of quality before distribution.

If something is off….

Attempting to predict when food will no longer be enjoyable or safe to consume isn’t an exact science. With that in mind, it’s smart to routinely examine foods in kitchen cabinets. If a food has noticeably changed in color, consistency, or texture, you should dispose of it. Unfortunately, some foods may go bad before they’ve reached their listed best-by date due to foodborne pathogens that can contaminate foods not properly stored or handled at any point in their selection, preservation, or storage processes.

Tools to help you save more food

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) developed a smartphone app, with the help of Cornell University and the Food Marketing Institute, called "FoodKeeper” that breaks down the storage longevity of virtually every food—this includes storage in the pantry, in the refrigerator, and in the freezer.

You can also find the searchable database on FoodSafety.gov.