What Do Food Label Expiration Dates Really Mean?

Posted on by Diane Javelli. This entry was posted in Engaging Interests. Bookmark the permalink.

Recently our school participated in a fundraiser to sell salsa. Imagine our frustration when we received the shipment and dozens of jars of salsa had “Best Used By” dates that expired a month before! I immediately called the company for an explanation and was told “the Best By date isn’t a safety date. The salsa is perfectly safe to eat for at least a year or two.” This statement did little to inspire confidence in our customers. I realized that despite being a Registered Dietitian, I know very little about labelling rules and regulations and decided it was time to find out the scoop.

I went straight to the source and contacted the local branch of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) who told me that they do not require food manufacturers to put “Best Used By” or “Sell By” dates on packaged food products. The one exception to the rule is infant formulas. Federal regulations do require a “Use By” date on infant formula labels, which indicates that products used by this date contain the minimum amount of nutrients listed on the label. It is NOT a statement of safety. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has similar guidelines and also does not mandate the inclusion of food expiration dates.

So why are the dates even there, and what do they mean? Food manufacturers can choose to label their food products with some type of date to signify when they think products are at their peak quality. Some states require such labels. However, there is no universal system in place to determine these dates; leaving companies to use their best guess to determine what they think represents their products’ peak quality and freshness. In most cases, products can be eaten well after these dates if stored in appropriate conditions. Consumers needlessly throw away hundreds of thousands of products each year that can still be safely used. In fact, a study by Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic found that nearly 20% of food waste in people’s homes is caused by confusing date labelling.

Common packaged food dates:

“Best Used By” or “Best Used Before”. These dates tell you the recommended shelf life for the best flavor, color, and quality of a product. The food can safely be used past this date. In the case of our salsa, it can be used up to 18 months past the date or possibly longer.

“Sell By”. These dates tell the store how long they should display the product for sale. These products can be safely consumed for days or even weeks after the sell-by date when handled properly.

“Freeze By”. This date is similar to a “Use By” date and indicates when a product should be used or frozen for peak quality.

“Packed on”. This is the date the food was packaged. It is generally not intended for consumers but assists the retailer in rotating stock and locating items in case of recall. They are not “Use By” dates.

Can codes. If you’ve ever looked closely, you’ll have noticed that canned goods have dates imprinted on them as well. Can codes are dates or a series of numbers stamped on canned items, which enable manufacturers to track their products, especially in the event of a recall.  Canned products are often good for 2-5 years or even longer. A shelf life test conducted on 100-year-old canned foods showed that while the food had lost its fresh smell and appearance, no microbial growth had occurred. The food was as safe to eat as when it was first canned those many years ago.

If you find all of this confusing you are not alone. Some consumer advocacy groups are pushing food producers to replace baffling labels with well-defined date markers. Unfortunately, at this point the lack of a clear labeling system leaves a lot of guesswork up to the consumer.  It’s helpful to understand best handling practices for perishable as well as shelf stable foods and I’ve shared several resources to help you sort it out. However, don’t forget to use the old fashioned method of simply looking and smelling to determine if food is still safe to eat.  Of course sometimes our senses can’t tell if a food has gone bad so the old adage “When in doubt, throw it out” definitely applies here.

www.foodsafety.gov Search for Charts – food safety at a glance
www.eatright.org  “Is My Food Safe” food storage App
www.food.unl.edu Food Storage
www.extension.wsu.edu  Search for “Shelf Stable Food Safety” or “Storing Foods at Home”


Diane Javelli, RDCD is a Clinical Dietitian at the University of Washington Medical Center. For the past 20 years she has worked in the Outpatient Nutrition Clinic and specializes in gastrointestinal disorders as well as recovery from esophageal cancer surgery. In her free time Diane enjoys playing tennis, hiking, cycling, reading, and cooking. Most importantly she is passionate about spending time with her husband, sons, dog, kitty and friends.



Want to hear more about the misconceptions of food labels and see firsthand how people are surviving solely off discarded and expired foods and products? In celebration of the 2016 SustainableUW Festival, The Whole U is teaming up with UW Housing & Food Services and UW Recycling to screen the award-winning documentary, “Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story.” which sheds light on North America’s enormous food waste. After the screening, representatives from the UW Food Pantry and UW Recycling will be on hand to provide details on how to prevent food waste, and light refreshments will be served–but not wasted! This event is on Tuesday, October 18 at 6:00 p.m. at the Alder Hall Auditorium. Save your spot here.