When Does Food Really Expire?

Photo (cc) by Desiree N. Williams

No food stays fresh forever. No, not even Twinkies. (Honey comes close, though.)

Knowing the expiration date is important to avoid getting sick and wasting money. But figuring out how long food actually lasts can be confusing: Labels use various phrasings to describe shelf life, like “sell by,” “use by,” and “best by.” Others seem to have only a date, with no explanation what it means.

The most surprising fact when it comes to food dating? With the exception of baby food and formula, the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t require dates at all, nor is there a uniform system for dispensing them. From the USDA website:

There is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States. Although dating of some foods is required by more than 20 states, there are areas of the country where much of the food supply has some type of open date and other areas where almost no food is dated.

In the video below, Money Talks News reporter Jim Robinson deciphers the food code with food safety expert Manny Delgado. Check it out, and then read on for more about the expiration of different foods.

As Jim mentioned in the story, you can see the rest of his interview with Manny Delgado here. The most important thing when it comes to food dating is to trust your senses. If it looks, smells, or tastes off, toss it. Poor storage and packaging defects can cause food to go bad before its time. Assuming the food is properly preserved, though, here’s a quick primer on how to use dates…

Sell-by dates

These dates aren’t that helpful for predicting the expiration of food you already have at home – a week or two past may be fine, but it’s not exact. “Sell-by” reflects store policy, not USDA rules. It’s telling shelf stockers when food needs to be moved from its regular place to the store’s clearance area. Especially if you plan to cook or freeze the food immediately, sell-by dates can lead to great buys.

Use-by or best-by dates

These dates are basically quality guarantees by the manufacturer: The proper flavor and quality should last until at least this date when properly stored. Often these products are fine to eat past the listed date – but they might not taste great. The USDA says, “’Use-by’ dates usually refer to best quality and are not safety dates. But even if the date expires during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality if handled properly and kept at 40 °F or below.” Save money by not throwing out food that’s still safe if not quite as savory.

Expiration dates

While the federal government doesn’t require these, some states do on certain products – especially dairy, and often meat. This is one area where you don’t want to cut corners. If the label explicitly mentions expiration, listen to it – with one exception from EggSafety.org: “Cartons may carry an expiration date (EXP) beyond which the eggs should not be sold, but are still safe to eat.” The USDA says you have 3 to 5 weeks from purchase.

That’s how the dates work. But the USDA also has a convenient list of storage times, which is combined below with info Jim mentioned in the video…

Fresh or uncooked food in the fridge

Follow use-by date. For a sell-by date or no date, cook or freeze within this time frame:

  • Hard cheese: 2-3 months
  • Eggs: 3-5 weeks
  • Yogurt: 3 weeks
  • Soft cheese: 1 week
  • Cured ham: 5-7 days
  • Beef, veal, pork, lamb: 3-5 days
  • Milk: 3-5 days
  • Poultry and ground meat: 1-2 days
  • Variety meats (liver, tongue, etc.): 1-2 days
  • Sausage from pork, beef, or turkey: 1-2 days

Cooked or processed foods in the fridge

Follow use-by date. For a sell-by date or no date, cook or freeze within this time frame:

  • Canned ham: 9 months unopened, 3-4 days after opening
  • Bacon or hot dogs: 2 weeks unopened, 7 days after opening
  • Luncheon meat: 2 weeks unopened, 3 -5 days after opening
  • Commercial sliced bread: 2 weeks
  • Cooked ham: 1 week unopened, 1 week after opening (3 days if sliced)
  • Cooked poultry or sausage: 3-4 days unopened, 3-4 days after opening

Pantry/cupboard

  • Canned fruits and vegetables: 2-5 years
  • High-acid foods (pickles, tomatoes): 12 to 18 months
  • Commercial sliced bread: 1 week

For more info on food handling and preparation, safety, and labeling, visit the USDA. Looking for more ways to cut the grocery bill? Check out 28 Tasty Tips to Save on Food and 7 Things You Should Always Buy Generic.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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