Understanding Expiration Dates: How do I know when my food's gone bad?

Updated:Nov 14,2014

apples; one expired the other sadThere is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States. Depending on which food you are buying, the date on the package could be a recommendation on when it should be sold by or when it should be eaten by. Since confusion surrounding a date could mean throwing out perfectly good food, here are some tips about food package dates and storage for some common foods on your shopping list.

Types of Dated Food

Open dating (use of a calendar date) is found primarily on the package of perishable foods such as meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products. "Closed" or "coded" dating might appear on shelf-stable products such as cans and boxes of food.

Types of Dates
  • A "Sell-By" date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.
  • A "Best if Used By (or Before)" date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • A "Use-By" date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.
  • "Closed or coded dates" are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer.
Safety After Date Expires
Except for "use-by" dates, product dates don't always refer to home storage and use after purchase. "Use-by" dates usually refer to best quality and are not safety dates. But even if the date expires during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality if handled properly and kept at 40 °F or below. See the accompanying refrigerator charts for storage times of dated products. If product has a "use-by" date, follow that date. If product has a "sell-by" date or no date, cook or freeze the product by the times on the chart below.

Foods can develop an off odor, flavor or appearance due to spoilage bacteria. If a food has developed such characteristics, do not eat it.

Mishandled Food
If foods are mishandled, however, foodborne bacteria can grow and cause foodborne illness — before or after the date on the package. For example, if food that requires refrigeration is taken to a picnic and left out several hours, it might not be safe if used thereafter, even if the date hasn't expired.

Other examples of potential mishandling are products that have been: defrosted at room temperature; cross contaminated; or handled by people who don't practice sanitation. Make sure to follow the handling and preparation instructions on the label to ensure top quality and safety.

Handling and Storage Tips

  • Purchase the food product before the date expires.
  • If perishable, take the food home immediately after purchase and refrigerate it promptly. Freeze it if you can't use it within times recommended on chart.
  • Once a perishable product is frozen, it doesn't matter if the date expires because foods kept frozen continuously at 0° F or below are safe.
  • Follow handling recommendations on product.
Meat/Poultry/Fish
These foods are highly perishable so they have “sell by” dates. This is not a food safety guide but instead an expiration date for how long a grocery store can display that food. Purchase the food product before the expiration date on the package. If there is a “use by” date, follow that date. If the food product has a “sell-by” date or no date, cook or freeze the product by the times in the chart below.

Always store your meat, poultry and fish in the refrigerator at 40° F or below. The chart below shows the approximate number of days or months to store food in the refrigerator or freezer after purchase of the food. For longer storage, keep in the freezer at 0° F or below and then cook within a day or two after defrosting. Even though it takes more time, always defrost meat, poultry and fish in your refrigerator instead of on your kitchen counter. If any of these foods develops an odd color or smell, do not use it.


 Type of Fresh Meat Refridgerator (40 0F or below) Freezer (0 0F or below)
 Fish  1 to 2 days 3 to 8 months 
Hamburger, ground beef, turkey, veal, pork, lamb, mixtures of them & products made with any of these ingredients  1 to 2 days 3 to 4 months 
 Steaks  3 to 5 days 6 to 12 months 
 Chops  3 to 5 days  4 to 6 months 
 Roasts  3 to 5 days 4 to 12 months  
 Chicken or turkey, whole  1 to 2 days 1 year 
 Chicken or turkey, pieces  1 to 2 days  9 months

Milk
Milk cartons also have “sell by” dates so if you store them in the refrigerator as soon as you get home from the grocery store and don’t leave them out on the counter during meals; they are still drinkable past that date (see the chart below).
 
Some milk is treated by an ultrahigh temperature (UHT) process, so they stay fresher longer. These shelf stable milks can be kept in your pantry for up to 90 days until they are opened After opening, spoilage time for UHT milk is similar to that of conventionally pasteurized milk. Therefore, after opening, it should be refrigerated just like pasteurized milk.
 
Type of Milk How long it lasts (in refrigerator)
(40 °F or below)
Pasteurized 7 - 14 days
UHT or Shelf stable milk 7 - 14 days (once opened)
 
Eggs
Depending on state regulations, your store-bought eggs will have a “sell by”, “best if used by” or an “expiration”(EXP) date.  Always purchase eggs before the "Sell-By" or "EXP" date on the carton. After the eggs reach home, refrigerate the eggs in their original carton and place them in the coldest part of the refrigerator, not in the door. For best quality, use eggs within 3 to 5 weeks of the date you purchase them. The "sell-by" date will usually expire during that length of time, but the eggs are perfectly safe to use.

 
Products Refrigerator
(40 °F or below)
Freezer
(0 °F or below)
Raw eggs in shell 3 to 5 weeks Do not freeze
Hard-cooked eggs  1 week Do not freeze 
 Egg substitutes, liquid (Unopened)  10 days  Do not freeze 
 Egg substitutes, liquid (Ppened)  3 days  Do not freeze 

Bread
“Best by” or “use by” dates are stamped on the plastic bag or tie tag of sliced bread. Freshly baked bread from the bakery gets stale faster as it doesn’t usually contain preservatives. It’s easy to tell when bread goes bad – if you see green or white mold spots forming, throw out the whole loaf, not just the pieces with mold.
 
Did you know the best place to store bread for maximum freshness is in your freezer? Keeping bread in the refrigerator actually speeds up the “going stale” process.
 
Type of Bread How Long It Lasts
Store bought, slice bread in plastic bag 2 - 4 days (on counter)
Bakery bread 1 - 3 days (on counter)
All breads 2 –3 months (in freezer)
 
The information and suggestions in this article and charts are intended as guidelines. Harvesting techniques, manufacturing processes, transportation and distribution conditions, the nature of the food, and storage temperature and conditions may impact storage life.
 
In-depth food safety information can be found at www.FoodSafety.gov, which is the gateway to Federal food safety information.

 
 
Article copyright © 2014 American Heart Association. This recipe is brought to you by the American Heart Association's Simple Cooking with Heart © Program. For more articles and simple, quick and affordable recipes, visit heart.org/simplecooking.