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Should you keep or toss food after its expiration date? Here’s how to decide.

Almost every food these days has some type of expiration date listed on the packaging. But do you know how these dates are determined? What do the different expiration dates mean? And whether you really need to follow them? Here are the answers to those questions.

How are expiration dates determined?

There are no standardized methods or regulations in the U.S. for determining expiration dates for foods. Some states require some type of date on perishable foods but do not regulate how those dates are calculated. The dates are determined by the food manufacturers. In many cases, you can eat food after the date on the package.

What do different expiration dates mean?

Here is a rundown of dates you may see on the packaging and what they really mean:

  • Use By: This has nothing to do with the safety of the food. It is a suggested date indicating when food should be eaten by. If the date has passed, it doesn’t mean you will get sick from it. Just evaluate the quality of the food before deciding whether to eat it or throw it away.
  • Best If Used By: This is also not a safety date. It is a suggestion of when the quality and taste of food is at its best. You can usually eat food well past this date.
  • Freeze By: This is also a date referring to the peak quality of food. It’s a recommendation that if you’re not going to eat the food by this date, you should freeze it to maintain quality.
  • Sell By: This date is related to when stores should take food off the shelves for purchase. You can still store the food in your own home after this date.
How do you know if you can ignore an expiration date?

According to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), many foods can be consumed past their expiration dates unless you see signs that the food has spoiled. They recommend that you let your senses be your guide to determine if a food is no longer okay to eat. Does it smell funny? Taste off? Look odd? Have a strange texture? These are questions to ask yourself before deciding whether to eat or throw food away. The one exception to this rule is infant formula, which should always be thrown away if the expiration date has passed.

So, when should you throw food out?

Often the decision to throw food out is based more on quality and taste than safety. According to the USDA, bacteria that cause food poisoning doesn’t grow in the freezer, so frozen foods are typically safe to eat. They may not taste as good after a while, but won’t make you sick. The organization also suggests that most canned and packaged foods will stay safe past the dates on the package, although taste and quality will start to deteriorate.

If perishable food is past its expiration date, let your senses be your guide to determine if food is still safe to eat. But if perishable foods that should be refrigerated have been at room temperature for more than two hours (or less if the temperature is over 90oF), they should be thrown out because bacteria may have a chance to grow that can make you sick.

“Many foods are safe to consume after their expiration date if they are handled and stored properly. Store all perishable foods at less than 40 degrees F and make sure to throw away any of these foods that are left at room temperature for more than 2 hours. You must always thaw and cook all food properly and do not keep leftovers for more than 3-4 days in the refrigerator. For all foods, make sure not to consume them if they look, smell, or taste off.”

-Desiree D. Lafleur, LDN, RD

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Date Last Reviewed: April 21, 2023

Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor

Medical Review: Jane Schwartz, RDN, CLT

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