Applesauce containers
Package with expiration date
Container of pretzels

Is food edible past the expiration date? What is the difference between an expiration date, best-by date, use-by date, and a freeze-by date?

Food expiration dates are confusing. Product dating is done on a voluntary basis with the exception of infant formula for which is it mandated. Food companies are not required by the federal government to include a date label but many still choose to include one as a way to ease the minds of consumers.

Most assume that the dates we see on food products are for safety but in reality they are there for quality purposes. Past the date label, the food is past peak quality. One of the reasons the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) does not require product dating is because of the confusion it could cause leading to increased food waste.

30% of the food supply is lost or wasted at the retail or consumer level.

Costumers often throw away perfectly safe and edible food because the product dates have past. The FSIS recommends food companies use the phrase “Best if Used By” to reduce confusion and limit food waste.

Because the federal law does not require product dating, there is no universal language set for these dates. That is why we see different labels such as “Best if Used By” or “Sell-By”.

What do they all mean?

  • “Best if Used By” indicates when the product will be of best quality or flavor; it does not indicate safety
  • “Sell-By” indicates to the retailer how long to display the product for sale for inventory purposes; it does not indicate safety
  • “Use-By” is the last date of peak quality; it is not a safety date (except for infant formula)
  • “Freeze-By” indicates when it should be frozen or used to maintain peak quality; it is not a purchase or safety date

Confused yet? Simply put, you cannot rely on the dates on your food products to know if a food is safe to eat or not. Foods that are not exhibiting signs of spoilage can be sold or donated after the “Best if Used By” date.

Even though these dates are not required on the federal level, some states may have their own rules. For example, certain states require egg cartons to contain a “Sell-By” date.

The dates that do appear on food labels are not determined by exact science. Factors that influence the length of time a food will maintain its quality and safety includes the amount of time outside of its ideal temperature, the type of packaging, and the characteristics of the food itself. For example, we know that fresh meat will not stay high quality and safe in the fridge nearly as long as dried rice will in the cupboard.

Find more information about date labeling here.

If you can’t rely on the food date labels to tell you when a food is unsafe, what should you do? The nose knows. For fresh foods like meat and dairy, trust your nose. If it sells rancid or bad, throw it out. If the food is moldy (fuzzy or green), throw it out.

Can you tell if meat is bad by the color?

Myoglobin is what gives meat its red color. When myoglobin and oxygen mix, it becomes bright red. That is why you might find ground beef red on the outside but brown on the inside. The outside has been exposed to oxygen but the inside has not.

When meat is stored, it changes color which is normal and to be expected. Color change by itself does not tell us if meat is spoiled. However, when meat is spoiled the color can change usually by darkening. The texture could also become slimy but the odor is the best way to know if meat is spoiled or not.

Find more information about the color of meat here.

For packaged foods, make sure the food is not moldy first. Understand that it might not be at peak quality if you use it after the date label but it might be totally safe to use. When in doubt, throw it out. If you are immune compromised, it is not worth taking the risk so throw out foods after the date label.

How can you decrease your risk of getting sick from food poisoning?

  • Wash your hands with plain soap (antibacterial soap is not necessary) and hot water before preparing foods and after touching raw meat or eggs.
  • Do not use the same cutting board to cut raw meat and foods that will not be cooked. A good rule of thumb is having at least two cutting boards and only using one for meat and the other for produce.
  • Wash surfaces with hot soapy water right away after handling raw meat or eggs.
  • Keep uncooked meat on the bottom shelve of the fridge so if any juices leak, it does not leak onto other food.
  • Refrigerate perishable food within two hours.

Find more information about food safety here.