Food Expiration Dates: What Do They Really Mean?

Image for food safety article While it is true that almost any food can become contaminated if handled improperly, some foods that are purchased or used after their expiration dates may also contain bacteria or other pathogens that can cause a foodborne illness. Others foods may lose some of their nutritional value without becoming contaminated.

To Toss or Not to Toss

The expiration dates on foods reflect when to buy or use a product at its best quality. So, while you will not necessarily get sick from eating expired food, its freshness and nutrient value may be diminished. Therefore, the trick is to know how long a product is safe to eat after its expiration date. The following tips may help.

The Cupboard

Pantry, or shelf stable (nonperishable) foods, like cereal, baking mixes, and peanut butter may display “best if used by (or before)” dates. These indicate the shelf-life of a product—they tell you when a product is no longer at peak flavor, texture, and appearance. You can safely eat most of these types of foods past their listed date if they have been stored properly, but they may not taste their best or be as nutritious. There are 2 major categories of pantry foods, unprocessed and processed:

  • Unprocessed pantry foods —These include foods like pastas, cereal, baking mixes, dry beans, grains, and nuts. If they have been stored unopened and have no damage to their packaging, these shelf-stable foods should be good for a up to a year. After opening, store these products in airtight containers to keep out insects, humidity, and odors.
  • Processed pantry foods —These are considered shelf stable because they have either been heat treated (canned foods), are a dry formulation (cake mixes), or have reduced water content (dried foods, crackers). The quality of these products should be fine until opened. But, watch out for cans that develop cracks at the seams, bulge, or spurt liquid when opened. These changes may indicate the presence of a toxin that causes botulism. If this happens, the cans should be discarded. Note also that certain processed pantry foods must be refrigerated once you have opened them.

To keep these foods at their best quality, store them in clean, dry, cool cabinets away from the stove or the refrigerator's exhaust. Do not store food under the sink, where they could be damaged by water or chemicals.

The Refrigerator

“Sell-By” dates on refrigerated foods like milk and chicken tell stores how long to display the product for sale and take into account additional storage time at home. If possible, it is best to buy a product before this date.

“Use-By” dates indicate the last day recommended for use of a perishable product while at peak quality. Try to avoid buying foods that are already past this date, even though most are generally still safe to eat. Simply check the item first for an odd odor, a strange appearance, or an unpleasant flavor.

Here is how to store your perishable foods:

  • Meat, fish, and poultry —Store meat, fish, and poultry in the coldest part of the refrigerator (generally in the “meat keeper” drawer or toward the back of the bottom shelf), wrapped in foil, leak-proof plastic bags, or airtight containers. Fresh poultry, seafood, and ground or chopped meat can be refrigerated for 1-2 days before cooking. Fresh red meat, and cooked poultry, can be refrigerated for 3-4 days. Lunch meats can be refrigerated for 3-5 days once opened, and hotdogs can be refrigerated for about 1 week. Freeze any meat if you will not be using it within these time frames.
  • Eggs —If you have purchased a carton of eggs before the date expires, you should be able to use them safely for 3-5 weeks. Eggs should be stored in their original carton on a shelf, not in the door (where it is not as cold).
  • Dairy products —Milk, cheese, yogurt, and butter tend to spoil quickly once their dates have passed. Like eggs, these products should be stored on a shelf, not in the door.
  • Fruits and vegetables —Raw fruits and vegetables may last anywhere from a couple days to a few weeks before spoiling. For best quality, store ripe fruit in the refrigerator or you can prepare it and then freeze it. Some dense raw vegetables, such as potatoes and onions, can be stored in cabinets at cool room temperatures. Other types of raw vegetable should be refrigerated. After cooking, vegetables should be refrigerated or frozen within 2 hours.

Always keep your refrigerator at or just below 40°Fahrenheit (4.4° Celsius). And do not overload the fridge—this prevents air from circulating freely and cooling foods evenly.

The Freezer

According to the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA), frozen foods are safe indefinitely, so their expiration dates apply only to quality and nutritional value. But, make sure the items are frozen solid without signs of thawing. Otherwise:

  • If you plan to freeze your food, do not wait to do so. Freezing it right away will help keep the product at its peak quality.
  • Freeze food in either its original packaging or packed in freezer bags or heavy-duty foil for maximum freshness.
  • “Freezer-burned” foods are generally still safe to eat. Cut freezer-burned portions away either before or after cooking.

Keep your freezer at or just below 0°F (18° below zero C).

The Countertop

Bakery items (which should have a “sell-by” date) that contain custards, meat, vegetables, or frostings made of cream cheese, whipped cream, or eggs should be kept refrigerated. Any bread product not containing these ingredients, or those that contain eggs but have been baked (like muffins), can safely be kept at room temperature. These foods should be good for about a couple of days. However, if you begin to see signs of mold, they should be tossed.

What to Do If You Suspect a Foodborne Illness

Contaminated foods can cause illness within a few minutes or up to a few days after consumption. Look for symptoms such as nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, headache, fever, and weakness. While most foodborne illnesses are short-lived and require no medical treatment, others can be serious or even life threatening. If you suspect food poisoning, you should talk to your doctor right away. This is especially important for pregnant women, young children, the elderly, and people who have a suppressed immune systems. In addition, any incidence of suspected food poisoning should be reported to your local health department immediately.

The Bottom Line

Regardless of the date on any product always be on the lookout for spoilage. If a food smells funny to you or has something growing on it that you think should not be there, throw it out immediately.


Food Safety—US Department of Health & Human Services
Partnership for Food Safety Education


Dietitians of Canada
Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education


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Food product dating. US Department of Agriculture website. Available at: Updated December 14, 2016. Accessed May 5, 2017.
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Last reviewed May 2017 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
Last Updated: 5/5/2017

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