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Food Expiration Dates: Keep or Toss?

You've likely experienced the outcome of eating something that's gone bad, like questionable sushi or milk that smelled just a little funky as you poured it into a glass. And once you've suffered the consequences of consuming food gone bad, taking zero chances ever, ever again is an understandable mindset. So, each time you open the fridge, rummage through the pantry or peer into a cupboard, you're on the lookout for expiration dates. And if you find an item that's expired, boom—it goes in the trash.

However, every year, 40% of the food produced in the U.S. goes uneaten. That's about 62.5 million tons of wasted food. Much of that can be attributed to food date labels. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), "Except for infant formula, product dating is not required by Federal regulations. For meat, poultry, and egg products under the jurisdiction of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), dates may be voluntarily applied provided they are labeled in a manner that is truthful and not misleading and in compliance with FSIS regulations."

Not only are expiration dates voluntary, but they typically reflect the quality, not the safety of food. In fact, foods are often still safe for consumption after these dates pass!

Best By, Use By and Sell By Dates

One of the biggest sources of confusion is the different expiration date labels you might see on various products. Let's break it down for you:

  • "Best if Used By/Before" – Here, the date indicates the best flavor or quality. It is not a safety date. And when it comes to dry goods, you typically won't notice any difference in taste or quality. After all, food manufacturers want you to use and/or toss food, so that you have to go out and buy more. 
  • "Sell-By" – This tells a store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. Again, it's not a safety date and the consumer will eat the food when it’s at peak flavor. It also has the effect of forcing retailers to move the stock on the shelves (possibly throw it out) and place an order for more product.
  • "Use-By" – This is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula. For all other foods, just remember that it's a recommendation.

Of course, the final inspector is you. If there is doubt and the odor or taste is off, or there's visible spoilage, always throw it out. Please eat responsibly.

So, How Long Do "Expired" Foods Last?

Below, you'll find a list of common grocery items and how long they last after their expiration dates. This is for unopened items, like those canned peaches in the pantry that sounded good when purchasing them but are yet to be eaten. It also has more suspicious items like fresh meats and eggs. This information reflects research by the experts at EatByDate.com where you can check on even more items you might come across in your fridge and pantry.

Click here for a printable version that you can stick on your fridge for easy reference. 

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