Save This, Toss That: A Guide to Expiration Dates

Stuck inside, you’ve started cleaning, right? If you’re following Marie Kondo, you began in your closets. If you’ve moved on to your pantry, your eyes are glazed looking over expiration dates. 

Since they each mean something a little different – Sell By vs. Best If Used By – there’s no telling how good the food inside is until you open it to smell. 

Here’s the catch: except for infant formula, there is no regulation by the USDA about product food dating. So the system has different meanings. Always adhere to a sniff test first if you’re concerned. Dry pasta, nuts and – obviously – milk, will let you know when their time is up.

Sell By

A “Sell By” date gives stores a recommendation to remove the food. It doesn’t mean the food itself has expired. Canned foods can last 2-4 years past “Sell By” date. 

Best If Used By

The “Best If Used By” date is also not a safety date, but a date the manufacturer recommends the product to be at its peak. After that date, unopened chips might start to stale or lose their flavor. 

Pack Dates

Manufacturers track the “Pack Dates” for recalls and inventory. This will always be in the past and shouldn’t be used as a safety date. 

Use By Date

The “Use By Date” feels like a safety date, but no, it’s another recommended use date. The manufacturer won’t ensure quality or taste after this date. 

Expiration Date

Items like baby formula and vitamins have an “Expiration Date,” after which the contents will break down differently in the body’s system. This is a must-toss date and an actual safety date. 

Quality Assurance Date

Manufacturers post a “Quality Assurance Date” similar to the “Best If Used By” date to recommend to stores how long to keep items on the shelf.


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