Food Expiration Dates & Food Safety

food expiration dates

In generations past, fresh food meant going out and picking (or killing) something. Access to food processed by someone else for money is a fairly recent addition in human history.

But refrigeration and convenience leave you with two questions: How do I safely store food long-term and how do I know when food has expired?

Food Safety

To handle fresh food safely in your home, guard against cross-contamination in your grocery cart and your kitchen. Foods meant to be consumed raw must be processed and stored separately from foods that need to be cooked.

This includes using separate cutting boards and taking care in your refrigerator storage. The experts at USDA offer some great advice on these simple steps to food safety.

Food Dating Requirements

Per the United States FDA, "A principle of U.S. food law is that foods. . . must be wholesome and fit for consumption." It's important to note that the only food that can't legally be sold past the expiration date is baby formula. The FDA does not require expiration or use-by dates.

Food processors and packagers may have a standard use-by or expiration date that relates to the date that the food is sealed, but consumers must make the final check on freshness once they open the food package.​

How To Read Expiration Dates

Expiration Date Definitions

​Sell By Date:

The Sell By date is a trigger set by food manufacturers to let retailers know when that particular food needs to be moved out of the store. It is not intended to let consumers know the food is inedible.

What does sell by mean to the consumer? It may mean a bargain if you plan to use the food up quickly.

Per experts at the Institute of Food Technologies, consumers can expect one-third of a products shelf-life to be available for use after the sell by date.

best by date

Best By Date & Best Before Date:

The Best By (or Best Before date) is intended to let consumers know at what point the product is of less than ideal quality.

Certain juices lose their nutritive value quickly once the seal is broken. If you choose to drink the juice past the best by date, it may be perfectly safe, but you may miss out on the vitamins.

Use By Date & Eat By Date:

The Use By or Eat By date refers to the date at which the food product quality will drop quickly. Certain foods are extremely stable, and others are fragile.

Example: Oranges can keep for weeks when properly chilled; eggplant goes south pretty quickly. You need to monitor these dates to enjoy foods at the peak of freshness and nutritional quality.​

Steps To Consume Food Safely​

To make sure you're getting the most nutrition from your food and consuming it safely:

  • 1) Review sell by dates and, if it takes you a while to finish a gallon of milk or a quart of orange juice, buy the latest available to give yourself time. If your household goes through food quickly, a later sell by date can save you money and is just as safe.
  • 2) Monitor best by dates with an understanding that this date refers to best quality, not safety. Food eaten after the best by date is probably safe, though it may be lacking in nutritional power.
  • 3) After the use by date, food quality will lessen and this can happen suddenly. Dairy products and any item purchased from the refrigerator or freezer case should be checked carefully before consuming if the use by date has passed.​

Top Food Expiration Date Questions

balsamic vinegar icon

Does Balsamic Vinegar Go Bad?

Balsamic vinegar may last 3-5 years when stored properly. 3 things that cause it to degrade quicker are light, heat and evaporation. So it’s best to store it in a cool dark place.

hard boiled eggs icon

How Long Are Hard Boiled Eggs Good For?

Hard boiled eggs are best stored in the refrigerator. Left in the shell they should last up to a week, but only 24 hours if peeled. Keep in mind that, even left in the shell, they can absorb odors from inside your fridge so it’s best to store in an air tight container.

orange juice icon

Does Orange Juice Go Bad?

Store bought orange juice should be consumed by the use by date. Typically it will have a 1-2 week shelf life when stored in the refrigerator. Expired orange juice will taste bitter or sour and have an off smell. When this happens, do not consume it.

chocolate icon

Does Chocolate Go Bad?

Chocolate doesn’t expire often, but it is possible. Most notably, it can experience sugar and fat blooms. These blooms can produce a white film on the chocolate which makes it unappealing. Keep it free from moisture and consume by the use by date.

coffee icon

Does Coffee Go Bad?

Ground coffee can last for years, but the flavor will be compromised over time. Once you open a new container of coffee it should last between 3-6 months in your pantry. Be sure to keep it free from moisture and warmth to prevent spoilage.

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Does Yogurt Go Bad?

Yogurt should be consumed before the expiration date. However, it can be frozen for up to 6 months. The longer it sits the more sour it can become and additives to yogurt such as fruit and sugar will reduce its longevity.

kahlua icon

Does Kahlua Go Bad?

Kahlua has a shelf life of 4 years if unopened and doesn’t require refrigeration. The best way to tell if it’s bad is to smell it or taste it. If it seems off, toss it out! If you pour it in a glass and it has things floating around or is off-color, it’s time to toss it out.

Long Shelf Life Foods

More Perishable Items

Expiration Date Infographic

food expiration dates infographic

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