Understanding Expiration Dates: How do I know when my food's gone bad? (2024)

Understanding Expiration Dates: How do I know when my food's gone bad? (1)

There is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States. Depending on which food you are buying, the date on the package could be a recommendation on when it should be sold by or when it should be eaten by. Since confusion surrounding a date could mean throwing out perfectly good food, here are some tips about food package dates and storage for some common foods on your shopping list.

Types of Dated Food

Open dating (use of a calendar date) is found primarily on the package of perishable foods such as meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products. "Closed" or "coded" dating might appear on shelf-stable products such as cans and boxes of food.

Types of Dates

  • A "Sell-By" date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.
  • A "Best if Used By (or Before)" date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • A "Use-By" date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.
  • "Closed or coded dates" are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer.

Safety After Date Expires

Except for "use-by" dates, product dates don't always refer to home storage and use after purchase. "Use-by" dates usually refer to best quality and are not safety dates. But even if the date expires during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality if handled properly and kept at 40 °F or below. See the accompanying refrigerator charts for storage times of dated products. If product has a "use-by" date, follow that date. If product has a "sell-by" date or no date, cook or freeze the product by the times on the chart below.

Foods can develop an off odor, flavor or appearance due to spoilage bacteria. If a food has developed such characteristics, do not eat it.

Mishandled Food

If foods are mishandled, however, food-borne bacteria can grow and cause food-borne illness — before or after the date on the package. For example, if food that requires refrigeration is taken to a picnic and left out several hours, it might not be safe if used thereafter, even if the date hasn't expired.

Other examples of potential mishandling are products that have been: defrosted at room temperature; cross contaminated; or handled by people who don't practice sanitation. Make sure to follow the handling and preparation instructions on the label to ensure top quality and safety.

Handling and Storage Tips

  • Purchase the food product before the date expires.
  • If perishable, take the food home immediately after purchase and refrigerate it promptly. Freeze it if you can't use it within times recommended on chart.
  • Once a perishable product is frozen, it doesn't matter if the date expires because foods kept frozen continuously at 0° F or below are safe.
  • Follow handling recommendations on product.


Fresh meat, poultry and fish are highly perishable so they have “sell by” dates. This is an expiration date for how long a grocery store can display that food. Purchase the food product before the expiration date on the package. If there is a “use by” or "freeze by" date, follow that date. If the food product has a “sell-by” date or no date, cook or freeze the product by the times in the chart below.

Always store your meat, poultry and fish in the refrigerator at 40° F or below. The chart below shows the approximate number of days or months to store food in the refrigerator or freezer after purchase of the food. For longer storage, keep in the freezer at 0° F or below and then cook within a day or two after defrosting.

Proper freezing can keep food safe indefinitely, but the quality (e.g., taste and texture) of foods may decline if stored longer than the times recommended in the table below. Even though it takes more time, always defrost meat, poultry and fish in your refrigerator instead of on your kitchen counter. If any of these foods develops freezer burn or an odd color or smell, do not use it.

Type of Fresh Meat Refrigerator (400F or below) Freezer (0 0F or below)
Fish 1 to 2 days 3 to 8 months
Hamburger, ground beef, turkey, veal, pork, lamb, mixtures of them & products made with any of these ingredients 1 to 2 days 3 to4 months
Steaks 3 to 5 days 4 to12 months
Chops 3 to 5 days 4to 12 months
Roasts 3 to 5 days 4to12 months
Chicken or turkey, whole 1 to 2 days 1 year
Chicken or turkey, pieces 1 to 2 days 9 months


Milk cartons also have “sell by” dates so if you store them in the refrigerator as soon as you get home from the grocery store and don’t leave them out on the counter during meals; they are still drinkable past that date (see the chart below).

Some milk is treated by an ultrahigh temperature (UHT) process, so they stay fresher longer. These shelf stable milks can be kept in your pantry for up to 90 days until they are opened After opening, spoilage time for UHT milk is similar to that of conventionally pasteurized milk and it should be refrigerated just like pasteurized milk.

Type of Milk How long it lasts (in refrigerator)
(40 °F or below)
Pasteurized 7 - 14 days
UHT or Shelf stable milk 7 - 14 days (once opened)


Depending on state regulations, your store-bought eggs will have a “sell by”, “best if used by” or an “expiration”(EXP) date. Always purchase eggs before the "Sell-By" or "EXP" date on the carton. After the eggs reach home, refrigerate the eggs in their original carton and place them in the coldest part of the refrigerator, not in the door. For best quality, use eggs within 3 to 5 weeks of the date you purchase them. The "sell-by" date will usually expire during that length of time, but the eggs are perfectly safe to use.

Products Refrigerator
(40 °F or below)
(0 °F or below)
Raw eggs in shell 3 to 5 weeks Do not freeze
Hard-cooked eggs 1 week Does not freeze well
Egg substitutes, liquid (Unopened) 10 days 1 year
Egg substitutes, liquid (Opened) 3 days Does not freeze well


“Best by” or “use by” dates are stamped on the plastic bag or tie tag of sliced bread. Freshly baked bread from the bakery gets stale faster as it doesn’t usually contain preservatives. It’s easy to tell when bread goes bad – if you see green or white mold spots forming, throw out the whole loaf, not just the pieces with mold.

Did you know the best place to store bread for maximum freshness is in your freezer? You can keep bread in the refrigerator for 2-3 weeks, but the refrigerator may cause bread to lose moisture quickly and become stale.

Type of Bread How Long It Lasts
Store bought, slice bread in plastic bag 2 - 4 days (on counter)
Bakery bread 1-3 days (on counter)
All breads 2 –3 months (in freezer)

The information and suggestions in this article and charts are intended as guidelines. Harvesting techniques, manufacturing processes, transportation and distribution conditions, the nature of the food, and storage temperature and conditions may impact storage life.

In-depth food safety information can be found at www.FoodSafety.gov(link opens in new window), which is the gateway to Federal food safety information.

Written by American Heart Association editorial staff and reviewed by science and medicine advisors.

See our editorial policies and staff.

Last Reviewed: Apr 25, 2018

Understanding Expiration Dates: How do I know when my food's gone bad? (2024)


Understanding Expiration Dates: How do I know when my food's gone bad? ›

If product has a "use-by" date, follow that date. If product has a "sell-by" date or no date, cook or freeze the product by the times on the chart below. Foods can develop an off odor, flavor or appearance due to spoilage bacteria. If a food has developed such characteristics, do not eat it.

How do you read a coded expiration date? ›

What is the standard expiration date format for foods? The standard format is MMDDYY, where “MM” refers to the month, “DD” refers to the date, and “YY” refers to the year. So if a product says 101525, it means that the product expires on October 15, 2025.

How to tell whether expired food is safe to eat? ›

Spoiled foods will develop an off odor, flavor or texture due to naturally occurring spoilage bacteria. If a food has developed such spoilage characteristics, it should not be eaten. Microorganisms such as molds, yeasts, and bacteria can multiply and cause food to spoil.

How do you decode food expiration dates? ›

Sell-By Date: Refers to the last day a retailer can display a product for sale; typically a food is safe to eat for 10 days after the Sell-by Date if refrigerated properly. Use-By Date: Refers to the last day a product will maintain its optimum freshness, flavor, and texture.

How to tell when food has gone bad? ›

Foods that deteriorate and develop unpleasant odors, tastes, and textures are spoiled. Spoilage bacteria can cause fruits and vegetables to get mushy or slimy, or meat to develop a bad odor. Most people would not choose to eat spoiled food. However, if they did, they probably would not get sick.

How to decipher date code? ›

The first two numbers stand for the year, while the last three numbers represent the day of the year. For example, if the code was 11322, you would know that the food was manufactured on the 322 day of 2011, or November 22nd, 2011.

How to read a batch code date? ›

The batch code consists of 6 digits and utilizes the Julian Date, the last digit of the year of manufacture, the production line, and the production shift. Example: 036521 036 = The thirty sixth day of the year, in this case February 5th.

What foods can you not eat after the expiration date? ›

Keeping all that intel in mind, ahead are 13 foods that do not fare well after their expiration dates, according to experts.
  • Infant Formula. ...
  • Meats. ...
  • Eggs. ...
  • Soft Cheeses. ...
  • Deli Meat. ...
  • Fiddleheads. ...
  • Strawberries. ...
  • Ground Spices.
Apr 20, 2023

Can you eat 20 year old canned food? ›

Most shelf-stable foods are safe indefinitely. In fact, canned goods will last for years, as long as the can itself is in good condition (no rust, dents, or swelling). Packaged foods (cereal, pasta, cookies) will be safe past the 'best by' date, although they may eventually become stale or develop an off flavor.

Can I eat 2 year expired canned soup? ›

Canned Vegetables, Meats, and Soups

Low acid canned goods like vegetables, canned meats, and soups should be eaten within 2-3 years past their expiration date.

How do you read a 7 digit date code? ›

Find the year from the first 4 digits if the number has 7 digits. Some JD will show the full year in 4 digits for added clarity. For example, if it's a 7 digit number and the first 4 digits are 1997, then that corresponds to 1997.

How to check expiry date if not mentioned on food? ›

To check the expiration date, you can look for “Use by,” “Sell by,” or “Best by” dates on the product. These are either on the bottom or side of the product. If the date is not explicitly written, you can check the date the product was manufactured. Do food barcodes have expiration dates?

How do you explain expiration date? ›

What Is an Expiration Date? An expiration date is the last day that a consumable product such as food or medicine will be at its best quality, according to the manufacturer.

When should you throw food out? ›

Leftovers can be kept for 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator. After that, the risk of food poisoning goes up. If you don't think you'll be able to eat leftovers within four days, freeze them right away. Frozen leftovers will stay safe for a long time.

What are 10 signs of food spoilage? ›

Signs of food spoilage may include an appearance different from the food in its fresh form, such as a change in color, a change in texture, an unpleasant odour, or an undesirable taste. The item may become softer than normal. If mold occurs, it is often visible externally on the item.

How do you read electronic date codes? ›

The date codes are generally in four digit codes. The first two numbers cover the year and the second two are for the week they were manufactured. So the example below shows the four numbers 8332 - made in 1983 in the 32nd week of that year.

What is the meaning of date coded? ›

Date-code means the day, month and year on which the consumer product was manufactured, filled, or packaged, or a code indicating such a date.


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