It's common knowledge that the food we buy has a shelf life and we see food expiration date labels on almost everything. I know people who will ignore those labels and eat food well past what it says as long as it tastes ok and there isn't something visibly wrong with it.

I also know people who follow those labels almost to the day and will throw away anything past the labeled expiration date, regardless of how it tastes or how much is left.

Our health is important, but wasting food is a shame, especially if it's still perfectly safe to eat. So, the big question is what exactly do those dates mean and what should we do once that date has passed and the food remains unfinished?

A Tremendous Amount Of Food Waste

Hartel's Disposal in Duluth has shared an informational sheet stating that food is the largest part of trash collected. In fact, it represents more than 20+% of all trash collected. They add that just a fraction of our food waste is composted or collected and most is hauled to a landfill.

They point out that when food is wasted, it wastes resources (water, energy, and labor). Wasted food in the landfill rots and produces methane, a super-pollutant more powerful than CO2, and a much better solution would be returning those nutrients to the soil to nourish the soil for the next generation of crops

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On a larger scale, the USDA estimates that 30 percent of the food supply is lost or wasted at the retail and consumer levels. and one source of this waste is consumers or retailers who throw away wholesome food because of confusion about the meaning of dates displayed on the label.

Understanding Expiration Date-Labeling Phrases

Understanding expiration date-labeling phrases can help prevent food waste. Here are some examples of commonly used phrases and what they mean:

  • A "Best, if Used By/Before" date, indicates when a product will be of the best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • A "Sell-By" date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date.
  • A “Use-By" date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula.
  • A “Freeze-By” date indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

It's worth noting that the Food Safety and Inspection Service recommends that food manufacturers and retailers use a “Best if Used By” date. They say research has shown that this phrase tells consumers that the product will simply be of the best quality if used by that calendar date. However, foods not exhibiting signs of spoilage should be wholesome and may be sold, purchased, donated, and consumed beyond the labeled "Best if Used By" date.

Except for infant formula, the USDA reiterates that if the date passes during home storage, a product should still be safe and wholesome as long as it was handled properly and was properly refrigerated if recommended.

Food should be thrown away, however, when signs of spoilage are evident. Spoiled foods will develop an off odor, flavor, or texture due to naturally occurring spoilage bacteria.

What Do The Codes On Cans Mean?

Codes on canned goods enable manufacturers to rotate their stock and locate their products should there be a recall. These codes appear as a series of letters and/or
numbers and refer to the date the product was canned. The codes are not
meant for the consumer to interpret as a “Best if Used By” date.

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If cans have an “open” or calendar date, that usually indicates a “Best
if Used By” dates for peak quality. High-acid canned foods, such as fruits and tomatoes, will keep their best quality for 12 to 18 months. Whereas, low-acid canned foods, such as meats and vegetables, will keep for two to five years.

Discard cans that are dented, rusted, or swollen should be thrown away.


Dates On Egg Cartons

Many eggs reach stores only a few days after the hen lays them. Egg cartons featuring the USDA grade shield must display the “pack date”, which is the day the eggs were washed, graded, and placed in the carton.

This number is a three-digit code that represents the consecutive day of the year starting with January 1 as 001 and ending with December 31 as 365. When a “sell-by” date appears on a carton bearing the USDA grade shield, the code date may not exceed 30 days from the date the eggs were packed.

After purchasing eggs, it is recommended to refrigerate them in their original carton and place them in the coldest part of the refrigerator, not in the door due to loss of coolness from repeated opening of the door.

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The mandates that supermarkets and food outlets must stick stringently to these dates and cannot sell food past them, what you do about them at home is up to you. So use your best judgment. Don't rely solely on dates, if you have any doubts, throw it out.


Hopefully, the more people are aware of what food date labels mean, the less food will be wasted throughout the country. The USDA's Food Product Dating Page is a terrific resource for consumers, providing a wide variety of related information.

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