Food Safety 101: What Does That Date on my Food Mean?

Product dates such as “use by,” “best by” or “sell by” listed on food packages can be confusing. When the date on the package comes and goes, does that mean the food is no longer safe to eat and needs to be thrown out? Find out what you should do.

According to the USDA, the date listed on food packages is only meant to be an indicator of quality, not safety. Whether you use a product before or after the date listed, be sure to always check for signs of spoilage before assuming it’s safe to eat. The USDA and other federal regulators do not require food dating labels. It is up to the manufacturer or retailer to include them.

While there aren’t federal regulations directing this, excluding infant formula*, manufacturers and retailers often choose to provide a date on packaged and fresh foods. If they choose to include a date, then the Food Safety and Inspection Service requires that those labels are not misleading and include the day, month and year for shelf-stable and frozen products. They also must include a “best by” or other phrase along with the date.

Some states have their own requirements. For example, some states do not allow for the use of a sell-by date on egg cartons.

Here are a few common phrases and what they mean:


What Expiration Labels Mean

While these dates can be helpful for knowing when your food is at its best quality, they don’t mean you necessarily have to throw out food once it passes that date or that you should still eat foods that show signs of spoilage before the date listed. Want to know how long you can trust different foods in the fridge? Check out: Food Safety 101: How Long Can You Store Foods and Leftovers?

Recently, two large grocery trade groups, the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, announced they’ve adopted standardized, voluntary regulations for product date labels. While these labels are voluntary and won’t show up on your grocery store shelves until 2018, be on the lookout for these new changes.

Want to know about food safety and expiration dates? Check these out:

NPR: Don’t Fear that Expired Food
Food Safety 101: Internal Meat Temperatures
What is Food Storage?

*The “use by” date on infant formula is required by the FDA. Formula past the use-by date should not be consumed.