Understanding Expiration Dates

Although food product dating regulations vary by country, dates are commonly found on many food items sold in Europe, the U.S. and Canada, especially on perishable foods like meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products.

Food labeling dates generally fall into one of three categories:

Safety

These are the most important dates to pay attention to. You need to use the food item before this date. If you can’t use the item before this date, you should either freeze the unused portion or throw it away before the date on the label. Don’t purchase any foods past these dates.

  • Use by – Most commonly found on fresh foods like dairy products, meat and packaged produce
  • Expiration date – Usually found only on infant formula and baby food. Some U.S. states also require an expiration date to be placed on eggs.

Quality

These dates refer to how long an unopened food product will remain at peak quality and freshness. They are not an indication of safety, and foods are generally still safe to consume after the date has passed assuming they were properly stored from the date of purchase. Examples of quality dates are:

  • Best before
  • Best if used by
  • Durable life date

Store/Manufacturer

These dates are generally provided to help a store know how long to display a product for sale. Examples of store/manufacturer dates are:

  • Sell by – This date serves as a guide so stores know how long to display a product for sale. Purchase products before the sell-by date has expired.
  • Packed/baked – These dates are mostly for store use to help know how long to display the food item for sale.
  • Closed or coded dates – Found mostly on canned foods, these are packing numbers generally used by manufacturers. 

To learn more about expiration dates and what they mean watch this video on the WDIV website.

Product Safety After the Label Date Has Passed

Although not all label dates are indications of food safety, it’s still best to avoid purchasing foods after any date that is posted on the label. If you have a product in your home that is past the posted “sell by” or "best by" date, it may still be safe to use or consume if it is unopened and was properly handled from the point of purchase. For perishable goods that display a use-by date, follow that date and either freeze or discard any unused portion by that date. If a product has a sell-by date only or no date at all, cook or freeze the product according to our food storage charts.

If foods are mishandled, foodborne bacteria can grow and cause food poisoning even before the date on the package. To avoid the potential for food poisoning, shop smart and run all your other errands first and buy groceries last so that you can take them home immediately after purchasing. Pay attention to product labeling dates if posted, especially use-by and expiration dates.

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