Can I Eat This? Decording Expiration Dates

February 27, 2014
by Michael Barber
Can I Eat This? Decording Expiration Dates

Many people are fanatical about throwing out food at midnight on the day the label says it is expired. Health studies have revealed, however, that many people are throwing out their food too early because of confusion over what all the dates and numbers on a label mean. Here is what you need to know about expiration dates on food.

Related: The Gross Facts About Food Poisoning

What does the "Expiration" date mean?

The expiration date began appearing on food labels in the 1970s. This was because, by that time, most people had stopped making their own food and instead buying products at grocery stores and supermarkets.

The expiration date on the label simply indicates when the food has hit its peak freshness, not that the food is bad by that date. Experts even say that unrefrigerated foods have no difference in taste or quality after that expiration date. 

What does the "Use By" or "Best By" date mean?

You will most often see "Use By" or "Best By" on shelf products that do not necessarily need to be refrigerated. Examples of this kind of food include peanut butter, mustard, and mayonnaise. This date is given to you voluntarily by the manufacturer and simply describes how long the food is at top quality before it is opened.

This date is not when you have to throw out the food if it has been unopened. The US Department of Agriculture's Food and Safety Inspection Service says that if people store it correctly at the proper temperature, they can still consume it.

Related: 4 Food Safety Tips to Always Keep in Mind

What does the "Sell By" date mean?

"Sell by" dates are found on perishable food, such as milk, poultry, seafood, and meats. The date is meant as a guide for stores, not consumers, and is simply an indicator of how long a product can be on the shelf in the store.

Even though you should by the product before the "Sell By" date, you can keep it at home for a long time after the date without having to toss it. As long as you safely store the food, then it is edible. Milk is very commonly tossed by the "Sell By" date, even though experts say it is still good for a week after that date. 

When should I get rid of food?

A lot of deciding when you should get rid of food comes down to common sense. Smell the food to see if it smells odd or sour. Also look carefully in the container, around the rim, and in the lid to see if mold has started growing. Even if food does not seem as fresh as before, usually it is still safe to consume.

There are many databases online, such as Keep It or Toss It, that will give you an accurate estimation if your food is safe to eat as well. If you eat food that has gone bad and you start to feel sick from it, go to an urgent care center immediately.

Related: When in Doubt, Throw it Out

Over 90 percent of consumers throw out food prematurely and 40 percent of the US food supply is tossed every year because of confusion over food dating. This is a huge waste that can be changed once you understand what the expiration date really means.