How Accurate Are “Best By” Dates and Other Expiration Date Labels? - GoodRx (2022)

Key takeaways:

  • Some sort of “expiration date” is on nearly everything, from raw meat to a box of crackers.

  • Consumers are often confused about what these date labels actually mean.

  • The only food product required under federal regulations to have product dating on the packaging is infant formula.

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Reviewed by Mera Goodman, MD, FAAP

Before you put a food item into your cart or basket at the grocery store, you likely look for a “best by” date (or something of the like) to make sure you’ll be able to use it before it goes bad. But did you know that an expiration date and other food date labels are not the same?

Here’s what you need to know —from what each label means to which foods to avoid after their expiration date.

Expiration date vs. date labels: What’s the difference?

According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), an expiration date is typically only found on infant formula, which is regulated by the FDA. The “use by” date on infant formula refers to the date the manufacturer can ensure both the quality and nutrient content of the formula is safe for your baby. FDA regulations require this date to be clearly labeled on infant formula packaging because once that date passes, the product should no longer be given to babies.

Aside from infant formula, you may see an expiration date on a carton of eggs, but it’s not federal regulation. Some U.S. states have specific egg laws, meaning it’s required for food manufacturers to use an “expires on” or even “sell by” date on egg packaging. In contrast, other states don’t allow “sell by” dates to be put on egg containers.

Now that we know what an expiration date is, what does “best by” date mean?

“Product dating can be confusing for consumers,” Meredith Carothers, MPH, and food safety specialist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), told GoodRx. “In general, product dates refer to the quality of a food product and when that product will be at its best quality.”

Here, we break down what each food date label means:

  • Best if used by/before: This label signifies when a food product will be at its peak quality or have the best flavor. This date label does not say how “safe” something is to eat. Think about a fresh strawberry: there is a notable difference in flavor when it has a bright red color and a firm texture versus when it’s more of a dull red and soft or mushy. Still, both are usually safe to eat.

  • Use by: This is the last day manufacturers recommend eating the product, as it’s likely no longer in its peak quality. Much like the best if used by/before date label, this date doesn’t say when the food will be unsafe to eat. The only exception here is infant formula.

  • Sell by: This date is more for store managers, not consumers. It lets those taking inventory know how long they can display the food product in store for.

  • Freeze by: This date specifies when a food product should be moved from the refrigerator to the freezer to maintain peak quality.

Which agencies regulate date labels?

“USDA and FDA share oversight of nearly all the nation’s food supply but do not regulate most date labels and are not required to do so by federal law,” wrote the authors of a 2019 study conducted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Here’s what each agency is responsible for monitoring:

USDA: This agency is responsible for overseeing the labeling and safety of meat, poultry, and egg products.

FSIS: A science-based system and public health agency within the USDA that ensures meat, poultry, and processed egg products are accurately labeled and safe to eat. The main goal of FSIS is to lower the incidence of pathogens (or bacteria) in food that cause foodborne illnesses such as E.coli, Salmonella, and Listeria.

FDA: This agency is in charge of the safety and labeling of all other foods that the USDA and FSIS do not oversee.

The FDA can encourage manufacturers to put a “best if used by” date on a box of crackers, but it’s not a federal regulation to provide this type of quality date.

How do food manufacturers determine the quality date?

Believe it or not, the FDA says most date labels are not based on exact science. This is because food manufacturers often put date labels on products at “their own discretion.” It’s their best guess as to when the product will begin to taste bad.

It makes sense — it’s impossible to predict the exact day a food product will no longer be at peak quality. For this reason, date labels aren’t usually required on packaged foods since they have a longer shelf life.

For meat, poultry, and egg products, manufacturers often determine the quality date by considering several factors, including:

  • The length of time a food is held during distribution and offered for sale

  • The temperature at which a food is held during distribution and offered for sale

  • The type of packaging the food product is in

  • The characteristics of the food

“Although the date on a food product can be a useful guide for consumers when purchasing, we recommend following at-home storage guidelines once a food product is purchased and taken home to ensure they are used before they begin to spoil,” said Carothers.

“Use or freeze raw whole-cuts of beef, veal, pork, and lamb products within 3 to 5 days of purchase, and fresh whole-cuts of poultry and all ground meat and poultry within 1 to 2 days of purchase,” she said.

Which foods are safe to eat past these date labels?

You can typically eat “expired eggs” as long as they have been stored correctly. The FSIS recommends you place a carton of eggs in the coldest part of your refrigerator (toward the back) shortly after purchasing them to avoid premature spoilage. However, if you want to eat eggs at peak quality, the FDA suggests using them within 3 weeks.

What are some signs my food has gone bad?

According to FSIS, two types of bacteria can appear on food: pathogenic (which causes foodborne illness) and spoilage. Spoilage bacteria won’t make you sick, but it will cause the food to smell, look, and taste funky.

Some signs of food spoilage include:

  • Changes in color

  • Changes in texture

  • Unpleasant odors

  • Off-putting taste

Storing food properly can delay food spoilage.

The bottom line

Food date labels can be very confusing and often only refer to when a product will no longer be at peak quality. Most of these labels aren’t based on exact science. The only food product required under federal regulations to have product dating on the packaging is infant formula. As Carothers mentioned, it’s more important to follow proper food storage techniques than to stress over labeling.

References

Food Safety and Inspection Service. (n.d.). About FSIS. U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Food Safety and Inspection Service. (2019). Food product dating. U.S. Department of Agriculture.

View All References (7)

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Food Safety and Inspection Service. (2019). Shell eggs from farm to table. U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Magoulas, A. (2017). Protecting your family from food spoilage. U.S. Department of Agriculture.

National Science Foundation. (n.d.). Expiration dates.

United States Government Accountability Office. (2019). Date labels on packaged foods: USDA and FDA could take additional steps to reduce consumer confusion.

U.S. Food & Drug Administration. (2019). Confused by date labels on packaged foods?

U.S. Food & Drug Administration. (2021). Infant formula: Safety do's and dont's.

U.S. Food & Drug Administration. (2021). What you need to know about egg safety.

GoodRx Health has strict sourcing policies and relies on primary sources such as medical organizations, governmental agencies, academic institutions, and peer-reviewed scientific journals. Learn more about how we ensure our content is accurate, thorough, and unbiased by reading our editorial guidelines.

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