Monday, September 20, 2010

What Do Expiration Dates Mean?

Savvy How To:
What Do Expiration Dates Mean?

My Little Chicken Rancher
Soon after we moved back to Utah, my husband decided that we should raise chickens. His rationale, as I’m not a lover of the “farm” life, was that it was truly provident living and we could become even more self-sufficient by having as many eggs as we wanted on hand 24/7. Well, I’m a sucker for that kind of smooth frugal talking and so currently we have 13 laying hens running around the yard (and one rooster who somehow snuck in). However, the first time I tried to peel a hard-boiled farm fresh egg it practically shredded in my hands. I couldn’t figure out what was happening until I asked the all-knowing Google. The problem was, my eggs were too fresh and needed to age in the fridge for a week or two. The older the egg, the easier it was to peel. In fact, eggs at the local grocer could be up to 90 days old! Even the USDA says that for best quality, eggs should be used within 3 to 5 weeks of the date you purchase them. During that time the "sell-by" date will typically expire, but the eggs are perfectly safe to use. That may cause you to squirm in your seat, but did you know that in many countries eggs are never even refrigerated? That leads to an interesting question, what do expiration and product dating codes really mean?

According to the USDA, "Sell by Feb 14" is a type of information you might find on a meat or poultry product. Does it mean the product will be unsafe to use after that date? "Open Dating (use of a calendar date as opposed to a code) on a food product is a date stamped on a product's package to help the store determine how long to display the product for sale. It can also help the purchaser to know the time limit to purchase or use the product at its best quality. It is not a safety date.”

Except for baby formula and some baby foods, product dating is not even federally required, says the USDA. And though dating of some foods is required by more than 20 states, there are many areas of the country where a significant portion of the food supply has an open date and other areas where almost no food is dated.

So what does all this mean for the consumer? There are 3 types of open dates that the USDA says shoppers should be come familiar with.

  • Sell By Date: is used as a guide for the store to tell them how long it can display a product for sale.
  • Best if Used By (or Before) Date: refers to the best flavor or quality of food. It’s interesting to note, it is not a purchase or safety date.
  • Use-By Date: is the last date recommended for the use of the product (unopened) to be consumed at peak quality. This date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product. “Use By” dates are also not a safety date. In fact, even if a date expires, the USDA says the product “should be safe, wholesome and of good quality — if handled properly and kept at 40°  F or below.”

Except for "use-by" dates, product dates don't always refer to home storage and use after purchase. "Use-by" dates usually refer to best quality and are not safety dates.

So when can you eat a product and when should it be thrown out after expiration dates run out? According to, food product dates actually encourage food waste! In fact, a survey conducted Shelf Life found that 76% of American adults throw away food after the expiration date had passed because they considered it unsafe to consume, even though the food tested was determined to still be safe.

My advice is go straight to the source, call the manufacturer and ask them for the shelf life on products your family consumes. I have called manufacturers many times before throwing an unopened product away and been told that it was still good for several more months! You’ll save your wallet a lot of money and your mind a lot of worry by simply calling the 1 (800) number printed on the packaging when possible. ShelfLifeAdvice also suggests that consumers trust their senses. If a refrigerated product looks, smells, and feels okay (isn’t slimy), it’s probably okay to eat for at least 4-7 days after the expiration date. And remember, regardless of package dating, proper storage and handling are truly the key to extending product shelf life.


  1. WARNING!!!! This article is lacking important information. Consuming some dry products like pancake mix, cookie mix, cake mix... past "use by" dates can poison you or even kill you. Do more research before you think it is okay to eat something past it's due date.

  2. Agreed. Research is a great idea. That's why consumers should call manufacturers before consuming past the expiration date as mentioned above.

  3. Angie,I find the cookie mix warning hard to believe. Please elaborate.

  4. Read this from Snopes:

    You can die from eating really old pancake mix and other mixes (2 years old in this reported incident) but only if you are allergic to the specific type of mold that can grow in these mixes.

  5. Amy thanks for all your research on this. Your awesome!


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