Are expiration dates causing you to waste food?

I’m guilty as charged. When I see something in our fridge with an expiration date that claims the product is old, I’m very leery of eating it (and sometimes even smelling it!). So when I saw an article stating that “expiration date confusion leads nine out of 10 Americans to throw away food that’s perfectly good,” it caught my eye.

This led me to do some research, and what I found was honestly new to me and pretty interesting. According to the USDA and also NSF (The Public Health and Safety Organization), the wording in front of the expiration date makes a difference.

Are expiration dates causing you to waste food? on 100 Days of #RealFood

Types of Expiration Dates

1. Use by

This wording is more about food safety than any of the others. It’s commonly found on fresh foods like dairy and meat products. You should either use or freeze items by this date and obviously not purchase any food items past this date.

2. Best before/Best if used by

This statement is more about quality than anything else. It’s simply a guideline to let you know how long the product will remain at peak quality and freshness. It is generally still safe to consume the product after that date.

3. Sell by/Packed on

These dates are there to let the store know how long to display a product for sale. It’s a good idea to purchase products on or before the “Sell by” date, but that doesn’t mean they have to be consumed by then.

So I guess I’m going to rethink the maple syrup in the fridge that says “Best by July 9th.” Before I did the research for this post, I avoided using it, but now I know better! I hope this information helps you save some money by not throwing out food that is still perfectly fine to eat.

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30 thoughts on “Are expiration dates causing you to waste food?”

  1. Food should be a life force that is ingested shortly after it is harvested, or killed.. That is why farm to table is gaining more popularity. I will continue to throw out food if I think it is too old. I notice someone wrote milk and the expiration date, when I was young there was no expiration date, but one week in your fridge it went bad, milk does not go bad anymore and there is something seriously wrong with milk not souring, bread not molding – there was a natural method of expiring food and that has done away. Ok thats my soap box

  2. Thank you for pointing out this confusing topic. I usually avoid eating foods when it passed by the “suggested” date, even though I don’t know what’s the purpose of those labels, because I automatically think these foods are not good because it’s already expire. But now I will change my mindset after reading this. Thanks!

  3. I forwarded your blog post to my husband, who has a habit of pouring milk down the drain if it’s even one day past the “best before” date. I always tell him: It says “Best Before” date , NOT “Throw Away On” date! ;)

  4. The important question that no one answers is “How long AFTER OPENING a sealed item can it last?” If items are canned or jar sealed, I rarely bother with the stamped date if it has been unopened, to a certain degree. However, how long will they keep once opened?

  5. I am a professional biochemist in the food and beverage manufacturing industry. While there are different ways to interpret use by/expiration dates; it is also extremely important to base it on the food/beverage/item that you are referring to. Some products are perfectly fine to use days, even weeks after “the date”. However, some food items truly do become unsafe if they aren’t used within a specific timeframe once they are opened. Proper storage is also essential to food safety. It you open an item and store it incorrectly (warm vs cold) bacteria will most likely FLOURISH. While food is heavily regulated by the FDA and labels are scrutinized, the consumer still has some responsibility to follow the label and directions correctly! Also – do a quick google search on which products that are to use after “the date” and which you should never use after “the date”. One shoe doesn’t fit all! :)

    I love your blog!

    1. Hi Savannah,

      Would like to seek your advice as a professional biochemist in the food and beverage manufacturing industry, I am new to the beverage industry and am finding it difficult to decide which preservative is suitable. Am currently preserving solely on sugar. I realised without preservative it is unsafe for drinking too. Please reply to ratnadevi808@gmail.com. Thank you.

  6. I trust my nose to tell me when things have turned. For example, this past Sunday my kid wanted OJ and we had an open “expired” carton in the fridge date July 9. Based on that we almost dumped it, but I smelled it and there was no odd tang to indicate it had fermented or spoiled so he drank it. He was fine and said it tasted good. I’ve also been known to use dairy way after the date stamped on it as long as it smells good. Think about it–cheese and yogurt have already spoiled before we bought them! You can tell when they’re no longer useful by visible changes and odd smells. I’m proud to say we waste a minimum amount of food and we boast healthy immune systems without ever suffering foodborne illness.

    1. I agree with Karissa. You have to trust and use your own knowledge. That’s what I do since I prepare different foods myself which we keep for a while in some cases and I need to be able to determine how long I can keep them (since there is no manufacturer’s expiration date on it). The same type of judgment goes for everything we consume, even for those items that come with expiration dates.

  7. tracie w sullivan

    on a recent episode of “Last Week with John Oliver,” he covered this topic. The interesting thing is that the manufacturer chooses the date. It isn’t a regulated process. SOOOO if you are selling something and want people to buy it often, would you give it a short or long shelf life??? I figure, risk the smelling and go from there. :o)

  8. Thank you for sharing your research. I have actually had problems with things going bad BEFORE the expiration dates. Specifically, bread and cheese (unopened) from Trader Joes. I can’t be the only person with this problem?

    1. Trader Joe’s bread has no preservatives, so one needs to freeze it quickly in humid conditions. I find I can keep it on the counter longer in winter then summer. Supposedly their bread dries out in the fridge. Though I do refrigerate tortillas and pita bread. I have had similar issues with their block cheese and find I can’t buy ahead. Though, I do take back unopened TJ’s cheese that has molded before it’s expiration date.

  9. Great tip! Thanks for sharing. Honey lasts forever, real maple syrup molds and should be kept in the fridge, and lunch meat keeps for only a few days! What about ketchup? Refrigerate? Take care. :)

  10. I would check with your local food pantry on dates. Shelf stable items can be good up to a year or more past the expiration date for example. They would have the best info on how long food is good for (they have to have certification on knowing how old foods can be in order to disperse them). We volunteer at our local pantry when we are able to. Not sure if it’s different state to state or not, that’s why I would check with them or the local food bank. ;)

  11. It’s also important to remember that (especially with perishable food) the date means nothing once the product is open. There are guidelines out there for how long something is good once opened that have little if anything to do with expiration/best by/sell by dates.

  12. Dates on everything are a huge pet peeve of mine. Foods never used to have them and there wasn’t rampant food borne illness…and I’m not that old! Such a waste! If it were that much of an issue, our pioneer forefathers would never have survived.

    Like milk with dates. Absolutely no need unless it is to avoid buying the oldest. If you have to look at the date to see if it is OK, clearly you have never smelled sour milk! I can still smell it and I haven’t bought/used milk in almost 20 years. I could have been 10 the last time I smelled it! It’s either good or it’s bad, is there actually anything that has an in-between?

    1. Yes, this! We have become so dependent upon companies to tell us how to live. Wouldn’t anyone know if they opened the milk and it smelled sour? Surely the first sip or bite of something bad would let you know not to continue eating it and make yourself sick. I doubt the plants grew with expiration dates 100 years ago. They made it ok. We should be able to as well.

      That said, I do understand the uneasy feeling you might get from using syrup that has passed its date or something like that, and I do appreciate that this article is sharing information to avoid throwing away perfectly good food. But do a little investigation with the senses — appearance, smell, a small taste — if all seems ok, the food should be ok.

      It makes me think of how we became germaphobic as a society. Children weren’t supposed to get dirty. They weren’t exposed to germs to build up immunity. We were (and are) overrun with antibiotics. As a result of all of this, the germs are only becoming stronger as we become weaker to resisting them.

  13. I’ve always questioned how long condiments last- mustard, mayo, pickle relish… We don’t use those things very often at all, and could probably go more than a year or two on one bottle of ketchup, but when I need them, I don’t want to have to make a special trip to the grocery store.

    1. What about the organic ultra-pasteurized milk products? I bought organic half and half at Costco because the date stamped on the package said Use by 9/16/15. However, in fine print, next to the nutrition facts it states “Use within 7 days of opening, but no later than date stamped above.” I am so confused! Does opening it make it go bad faster? I’ve also noticed this on Almond Milk as well.

      1. Opening it does make it go bad faster because it introduces organisms that were killed during pasteurization. It must be used by the date, but if the date is 2 months away (for example) you have 7 days from when you opened it to use it up. It you open it less than 7 days from the use by date then it should be used up or tossed when you reach the printed date on the container.

  14. I was once told by a grocery store butcher that meat and dairy items should be used or frozen within 3 days of the sell-by date, so I’ve always stuck to that.

  15. So my big question is when products have a “sell by” date, such as packaged meat, how much longer beyond that date are they good for? I have been treated “sell by” dates on meat the same way as “use by” but trying to figure out what the food industry really meant.

    1. I was told by a grocery store butcher that the product, especially meat or dairy, should be consumed within 3 days of the “sell by” date.

    2. I have read that fresh grocery store meat must be cooked or frozen within 2 days of purchase. I figure since the “fresh” grocery store meat is most likely meat that has been defrosted, and it is best not to re freeze meat, I try to buy fresh meat according to when I plan to cook it.

      Luckily, I can buy most of my meat frozen at the farmers market. Though I wonder, how many days can meat safely be defrosted in the fridge before cooking?

  16. The website StillTasty.com has been a big help when I’m trying to decide whether to throw something out. It also has tips about how to store different foods to maximize their shelf life.

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