Everything You Know About Expiration Dates is Wrong!

October 19, 2021 / 5 mins read

Look at a can, look at the date… expired? TRASH! I mean, who would dare eat expired food?

Well, what if we told you that the food you just threw away was still good? That’s right. Perfectly edible food down the tube.

Sadly, you’re not the only one. According to a study from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), ninety percent of Americans misinterpret the dates on labels, whether it’s a “sell by,” “best if used by,” or “use by” label. Despite these labels you see, there are no federal regulations regarding the dates, (with an exception to baby formula). These dates are simply the manufacturer’s best guess on the item’s freshness, which is oftentimes, very misleading.

With the exception of infant formula, the federal government doesn’t actually have any laws or regulations about the expiration dating of food products. According to the USDA’s Food Product Dating Guidance, “There are no uniform or universally accepted descriptions used on food labels for open dating in the United States.”

This lack of clear rules leads to the amalgam of different phrases found on foods at supermarkets today, from “best if used by” to “EXP.” Here’s a guide to what all of these different phrases mean (see here, here):

  • “Sell by”: This is the last date when sellers (such as supermarkets and grocery stores) can have the item on their shelves. Manufacturers want consumers to receive the product at its optimal quality; therefore, food should still be of good quality for at least several days after a “sell by” date.
  • “Best by” or “best if used by”: This date is much more subjective, as it measures the last date at which the food will be at its tastiest (according to the manufacturer). This date is not related to food safety, only to taste.
  • “Use by”: Similar to a “best by” date, this is the last date when the manufacturer has determined food is at its peak quality. As with “best by”, this date is also not related to food safety, except in the case of infant formula.
  • “Expiration” or “EXP”: This is the date after which the manufacturer has decided the food should not be sold or eaten due to decline in quality.
  • “Packed on”: This is the date when the food was packaged. Pack dates are required by the USDA for certain foods, such as poultry, in case of an outbreak of foodborne illness.
    These labels you see are a huge contributor to food waste in the U.S. In fact, according to Feeding America National Organization (FANO), $218 billion dollars worth of food is thrown away each year by manufacturers, retailers, restaurants, and everyday shoppers.

With all of the food being wasted, there are still over 41 million food-insecure people in America. If we all took the time to educate ourselves about those very labels and the ability we have to still consume items shortly after the expiration date, we could slowly, but surely reduce food waste and contribute to a more livable, sustainable, and food-rich community.

With the current state of the economy, and more recently, the government shutdown (that put over 800,000 workers in crisis mode), there is a great need to save money and resources while ensuring that families don’t feel like they are left without options when there are plenty of resources available.

Below is a list of categories that you can use to determine if what’s in your pantry is still safe to consume today, tomorrow, and maybe even next month!

  • 3 months Juice, Soft Drinks, Snacks, Candy (except chocolate)
  • 6 months Complete Meals (instant ramen, boxed mac & cheese), cereal, oatmeal, baking products, coffee, tea
  • 1 year Canned Vegetables, condiments, oil, canned soups, canned fruits, proteins with and without meat, starches

If you are donating food and are unsure about an expiration date, feel free to drop it off and we will determine the freshness based on our quality control and food handling procedures.

Content for this post was borrowed in part from the following articles:



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