Dates printed on your food aren’t about expiration: What they really mean

(NEXSTAR) — We’ve all been there: you reach for a bag of chips in the pantry only to realize it’s past the date printed on the package. Or maybe you’ve found a shelf of discounted food at the grocery store that’s nearing its printed date. 

Once that date has passed, does that mean the food has expired and you shouldn’t eat it?

The answer is a bit complicated. 

What does the date on my food package mean?

It all comes down to what that date means. Found on the lid, label or somewhere else on the package, that printed date will, in most cases, be paired with the text “Best If Used By” or “Best By.” 

That date does not signify when the product has expired, the Food and Drug Administration explains. The FDA only requires a “use by” date on infant formula — this is to ensure “the formula contains not less than the quantity of each nutrient as described on the label,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture explains.

However, the FDA says consumers often wrongly view the dates as the end date for foods, leading to billions of dollars worth of food being mistakenly thrown out. 

When it comes to date labeling, it’s guidance for “how fast to consume [the] food before the quality deteriorates,” Abby Snyder, an associate professor of food science at the Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, told Nexstar. 

“It doesn’t mean that the product is necessarily ‘bad’ or going to make you sick,” said Andy Hirneisen, a senior extension educator and leader of Penn State Extension’s Retail and Consumer Food Safety Team. “It’s just that the quality is going to suffer after that.”

Quality changes could include the product separating (such as when you try to get ketchup out of its bottle, but a watery red liquid comes out instead) or “spoilage microbes” that could make your food taste different, Snyder explained, but it “doesn’t make the food unsafe.”

When is food no longer safe to eat?

The USDA explains that if the date passes while the food is in your home, the food “should still be safe and wholesome if handled properly until the time spoilage is evident.” 

Signs of spoilage include “an off-odor, flavor, or texture due to naturally occurring spoilage bacteria,” the USDA says, adding that “if a food has developed such spoilage characteristics, it should not be eaten.”

Many foods include guidance on how they should be stored. Ketchup labels, for example, recommend refrigerating after opening (though you don’t necessarily have to do that). The same can be said for butter, such as on the packages below. Manufacturers may tell you to keep an item frozen, like a pizza. Others, such as black pepper, may require being stored in a “cool, dry place.”

When food is not stored based on the advised guidance, bacteria can grow faster and quality can be impacted, the USDA notes. 

Ultimately, if you grab a jar of peanut butter or a container of yogurt and notice that you’re a day beyond the date label, that doesn’t mean it has to go right in the trash. As the USDA and the FDA explain, you’ll just need to check if the food is still of good quality or whether it has any spoilage bacteria (which is still good advice, even before the date label day).

The USDA also has a tool, the FoodKeeper App, that outlines storage guidance to “maximize the freshness and quality of items.” This includes a timespan in which the food should be consumed as well as where to best store it.

In recent years, major chains in the U.K. have opted to remove the “best before” labels on some foods in an effort to cut down on food waste.

Date labels were widely adopted by manufacturers in the 1970s to answer consumers’ concerns about product freshness. Since 2019, the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates around 80% of U.S. food, has recommended that manufacturers use the labels “best if used by” for freshness and “use by” for perishable goods, based on surveys showing that consumers understand those phrases.

There have been attempts to pass federal policy that clarifies the use of dates on food, but a bill introduced last year in the House has been stalled in a subcommittee.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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