“Best By”, “Sell By”, “Use By”… Is my expired food safe to eat or not?

So you go to the fridge to pull your yogurt and notice it expired two days ago. Should you throw it out? Eat it? Only use it in cooked foods? What about eggs? Milk? Produce? What if it expired two weeks ago?

Food labeling in the U.S. is highly confusing. Partially because of this, Americans waste an obscene amount of food. The USDA estimates Americans waste between 30-40% of food, or 33 billion pounds of food yearly, with about 40% wasted by consumers (60% is lost before it ever reaches retail) (1,2). Changing food labeling is the best long-term solution to this problem, but this will take some time and perhaps changes in food labeling laws (3). In the meantime, consumer education is the best solution, so please keep reading.

FAO. 2011. “Global Food Loss and Food Waste.”

The main source of all the confusion behind expiration dates is a misunderstanding of their purpose. Consumers (naturally) assume expiration dates refer to how long it’s safe to eat the food for. In reality, expiration dates on food are the producer’s estimate of how long the product will maintain top quality (4,5,6). According to the USDA, which regulates meat, poultry, and egg products, the one exception is the “Use by” dates on infant formula, which is regulated for nutrient content and ability to pass through the nipple of a bottle (5). So, why all the different labels and what do they mean?

  • “Best by”:  the product will be best quality if used before this date (which is likely a generous estimate by the manufacturer). It’s still safe to eat beyond this date, but it may not taste as fresh (5).
  • “Sell by”:  this is actually a label for the retailer, indicating that if the item isn’t sold by that date, it should be pulled from the shelves because the consumer won’t get much shelf life from it (5). This is why you can sometimes buy products at or past their “sell by” dates for less. Again, it’s not an indicator of food safety
  • “Use by”/”Expires on”:  This generally means the same thing as “best by”, with the aforementioned exception of infant formula (5). MSU notes that for yeast and dough products, it also applies as a hard cutoff, though I suspect it’s because most of the yeast will be dead after that date and the product won’t work properly (4). Another possible exception would be deli-sliced deli meats or deli meats without preservatives. Since Listeria can grow in refrigeration temperatures, storing deli meats well beyond their expiration dates could allow any Listeria present to grow to high levels (6).
  • “Best if used by”:  This is the USDA’s recommended label (5). Again, it refers to quality, not safety.

In short, go ahead and use the expired yogurt, cheese, milk, eggs, produce, or meat, as long as it isn’t growing mold or spoiled and you’ve stored it properly. You won’t get sick, and you’ll be cutting down the total food waste. Next week, we’ll talk more about food spoilage vs food safety and a little on the microbes behind each.


Sources & Additional Information:

(1) Food Waste Estimates from the USDA: https://www.usda.gov/oce/foodwaste/faqs.htm

(2) Food and Agriculture Organization: http://large.stanford.edu/courses/2012/ph240/briggs1/docs/mb060e00.pdf

(3) Study on food waste in the U.S.: http://large.stanford.edu/courses/2012/ph240/briggs1/docs/mb060e00.pdf

(4) MSU’s explanation of food labeling: http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/understanding_date_stamp_labels_on_food 

(5) USDA fact sheet on food dating (lots of information):  https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/food-labeling/food-product-dating/food-product-dating

(6) Well-written discussion from PBS:  https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/food-labeling/food-product-dating/food-product-dating

(7) North-America specific compilation of food waste (draws heavily on FAO study): https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/wasted-food-IP.pdf

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