Food Expiration Dates

Only Food Companies Know How Expiration Dates Are Set

Often contemplated and lampooned, food expiration dates can seem like a great mystery.

In the words of Jerry Seinfeld, “how do they know that is the definite, exact day?”

But the dates are actually regulated by the government, right?

Actually, they’re not. Neither the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), tasked with ensuring the safety of American food products, or the U.S. Department of Agriculture mandate any expiration date labeling.

Labeling the products is up to the private manufacturers, and they’re usually based on nonpublic tests performed internally in the company.

Since U.S. food law requires that all food delivered to consumers is safe, however, an expiration date doesn’t mean the company is safe from prosecution.

The only exception is for infant formula, which is required by the FDA to have a “use-by” date. Also, if an expiration date is used, it has to give both month and day of the month, and year in case of shelf-stable and frozen products.

There are also regulations in more than 20 states mandating food labeling, but they are all different from each other.

What the different labels mean

Although the federal government doesn’t require or regulate labeling, it does publish some guidance to what the different labels mean.

  • “Sell-by,” which tells merchants how to to display the product for. “You should buy the product before the date expires,” the USDA website says.

  • “Best if Used By (or Before),” which is the date recommended for best flavor and quality. It doesn’t refer to safety.

  • “Use-By,” which is the last date recommended for use at peak quality.

There are also so-called closed or coded dates, which are simply numbers, not dates, that are for use by the manufacturer.

What the USDA recommends

The government also recommends that you follow “use-by” dates if a product has one, and that you cook or freeze products with “sell-by” or no dates within a certain time.

Click the headlines below to see how long the USDA says common products typically last. Refrigerator temperature is assumed to be the recommended 40F or less.

How long you should store uncooked, fresh food in your fridge

Product

Storage time after purchase

Poultry

1 or 2 days

Beef, Veal, Pork and Lamb

3 to 5 days

Ground Meat and Ground Poultry

1 or 2 days

Cured Ham, Cook-Before-Eating

5 to 7 days

Sausage from Pork, Beef or Turkey, Uncooked

1 or 2 days

Eggs

3 to 5 weeks

How long you should store processed and sealed products in your fridge

Product

Unopened

After opening

Cooked Poultry

3 to 4 days

3 to 4 days

Cooked Sausage

3 to 4 days

3 to 4 days

Bacon

2 weeks

7 days

Hot dogs

2 weeks

1 week

Ham, fully cooked

7 days

slices, 3 days; whole, 7 days

Processed and sealed products that can be stored for a long time

Product

Unopened

After opening

Ham, canned, labeled “keep refrigerated”

9 months

3 to 4 days

Ham, canned, shelf stable

2 years/pantry

3 to 5 days

Canned Meat and Poultry, shelf stable

2 to 5 years/pantry

3 to 4 days

The guideline, of course, is always “when in doubt, toss it out,” as the food professional organization Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states.

But, with Americans wasting food for more than $165 billion a year, according to the Washington Post, it’s good to be able to tell fact from myth.

Updated

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Ole Skaar