Decoding Grocery Store Dates

Food expiration dates might not mean what you think. Read on to see if you're throwing out perfectly good food.

By Navy Federal July 13, 2017

Have you ever thrown away a food item because it was past the date on the package? Perhaps it still looked and smelled fine, but you wanted to err on the side of caution. Food waste is a growing problem in the U.S.–roughly 95 percent of the food we throw away ends up in landfills or combustion facilities–yet much of the food we throw away can still be consumed. Learning what the terms “Sell by,” “Best if used before” and “Use by” mean can help you avoid tossing away food that’s still edible. Let’s clear up the confusion and make sure you aren’t letting good food–and money–go to waste.

  • “Sell by” dates. These dates are meant to tell retailers “sell this product by this date.” They’re not an indicator of food safety, but rather intended to alert retailers when they should replace products on their shelves. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends you buy products before the listed date, but also notes they’re likely still edible for days or weeks afterward.
  • “Best if used before/Use by” dates. These are freshness dates that tell you how long a food item will be at its best flavor and quality. The dates have nothing to do with food safety and are not nationally regulated (with the exception of infant formula). In fact, these dates are sometimes based solely on consumer taste tests.

Making Sense of “Use By” Dates

So what to make of all those “Use by” labels and dates? These labels are simply a way to help consumers and retailers know when food is at its best quality. Again, with the exception of infant formula, these labels and dates are in no way an indicator of a product’s safety. If you’re unsure whether to throw out a food product, follow these guidelines:

  • Milk: The date on a milk carton is usually set for three weeks after the pasteurization process. After three weeks, milk may begin to smell or taste sour, but it’s still safe to use. Dates on milk cartons can vary by state. Each state has its own dairy regulations, and some don’t regulate at all. Milk is generally still good for up to a week after the date on the carton.
  • Canned food: If there’s no rust, damage or swelling, non-refrigerated, low-acid canned food such as canned meats and most canned vegetables can last for years. In general, high-acid canned food, including tomatoes and pineapple, should be discarded after 18 months. Be sure to store canned foods in a cool, dry place.
  • Unopened, dry packaged foods (cereal, pasta, rice, cake mixes): Stored unopened in a cool, clean and dry environment. These pantry staples will generally keep for up to one year.
  • Frozen food: As long as it was good before freezing, frozen food is safe indefinitely. Recommended storage times are based upon quality only. For example, frozen hamburger and other ground meats will generally taste best if eaten within four months of being frozen.
  • Refrigerated perishables: Any perishable food that has been above 40° F for two hours or more, and any food with an unusual smell, color or texture should be discarded. Examples include bad-smelling lunch meats, slimy vegetables or anything with obvious mold growth. Be sure to cook or freeze fresh poultry, fish and ground meats within two days to maintain freshness.

Learning more about food safety guidelines won’t just protect you from rotten food and save you money. It also helps the environment. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), roughly 133 billion pounds of food is wasted each year in the United States, which contributes to methane emissions from landfills.

One way to cut down on the amount of food thrown out is to try to buy only what you really need. Start tracking your food and overall spending, as well as prepare household budgets, using Navy Federal’s mobile* and online banking tools.

This article is intended to provide general information and shouldn't be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to your situation and about your individual financial situation.