What Does Expiration Date Really Mean?


You walk down the aisle and look at the dates labeled on the package. You decide the expiration date is much further down the current date and purchase the product, but what does this actually mean? Well for one thing, those expiration dates are usually referred to the quality and freshness of the food, not necessarily whether its safe to eat or not. So technically, even if a food passes the expiration date, it can still be consumed safely. It may not taste as fresh, but you can still still gulp down the last glass of milk even if its expired. Just watch out for the pungent taste.

Language of Expiration Dates

The dates printed on food containers which tell us when to purchase, eat or throw out the food is devised by the individual manufacturer or producer of the product. The governmental public health policies have nothing to do with these dates. To make matters worse, those producers make it rather confusing as to what all those dates mean. But don’t worry, that’s why we’re here. Here is a brief explanation of some of those dates.

  • “Sell by” date – This lable is for the store, which lets the employers of the store know how long to keep the product on the shelf. You should buy the product before this date expires
  • “Best if Used by” date – This date does not refer to whether its safe or not to consume, but rather its quality. This date is recommended for best taste or quality. Purchase and use the item before this date passes to get the best quality of the item.
  • “Guaranteed Fresh” date – This usually refers to bakery items such as bread. They will still be edible after the date, but won’t be as fresh.
  • “Use by” date – This is the last date the manufacturer or producer of the product recommends to eat the food by. These dates indicate when the product will lose its freshness. Again, this is not a safety date, but rather the quality. So eating the product a few days after the date passes won’t really hurt you.
  • “Pack or Coded” dates – Don’t confuse these dates with the use by dates, although the actual date it shows might be confusing itself. These are the dates the manufacturer puts on the label to track the product when it is being shipped. These can be codes which typically resemble dates and time when the container or package was filled and the place of manufacture. An example would be “09B27  20052014.”

What if I Don’t See Any Dates?

Sometimes you won’t find dates on the packaged or loose food products. In this case, you can use the following as a guideline:

  • Poultry, such as chicken and turkey, unless it is frozen, will last 1-2 days raw and unopened, 3-4 days cooked and 3-4 days before cooking but after opening.
  • Beef and lamb will last 3-5 days when cooked
  • Ground meat and poultry (think keema and kofta) will last 1-2 days when its raw and unopened and 3-4 days when cooked.
  • Eggs will last 3-5 weeks raw and in the shell in the fridge.
  • Canned meat, poultry and fish will last 2-5 years unopened stored in the pantry and 3-4 days after opening it
  • Bread will last 3 months when frozen and 3-5 days after opening when stored in a pantry
  • Fruits and veggies can vary in times of freshness. Green beans for instance can last a few days, onions can last a couple of weeks (unpeeled). Store veggies and fruits in the fridge, and remember they will lose their freshness once they are chopped.
  • Dairy products like milk and cheese should be used by the “use by” date, but if you don’t find the date on the package, you can usually use your nose to smell if its sour or pungent.

Food Safety

Since product dates don’t give you a true guide to safe use of the product, here are some food safety tips you can ensure:

  • Purchase the product before the date expires
  • If the item is perishable, meaning if the food is likely to spoil, quickly take the food item home and refrigerate it. If you want, you can freeze it as well
  • Freezing the item negates the expiration date because foods kept in the freezer are safe regardless of the expiration date

The Takeaway

Expiration dates will tell you how long the food item will be fresh. You can safely consume the food prouduct after the date has passed, but it won’t be as fresh.  Learn the language of food dates, follow the guidelines if there is no date on the package and look to the food safety tips and you will learn what those manufacturers are telling you.

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