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Here's How Food Manufacturers Choose Expiration Dates and What They Actually Mean

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Stephanie MialkiGuest Blogger
August 06, 2016 · 3.1k Views

“How long has this milk been in the fridge? Is it bad?” (Smells it). “Yep, it’s bad!”

Nobody wants to serve themselves or their families bad food; that’s why we’re always smelling food and beverages for foul odors and checking expiration dates before we dig in. Food companies are required to label their food with dates to help cut back on people eating spoiled food, but not all of those dates mean what we think they mean. Typically, there is one of several dates printed on most foods items, including “best if used by”, “use by”, “best before”, “sell by”, and “expiration date”. While most people lump all of these terms and dates into the “must eat or throw away by” category, the fact of the matter is that these dates really have very little to do with figuring out when something in the fridge has actually expired or become unedible. Why? Let’s take a look:

 Whether you're visiting Whole Foods, Safeway, Vons, or Costco, make sure to check the dates just in case! It wouldn't hurt to keep this handy guide in hand, too.


The dates on most food items are JUST guides.

Source: James Worrell via Consumer Reports

Believe it or not, these dates are not regulated (other than on things like baby formula). Food manufacturers are legally allowed to set their own dates, and because there are no legal rules or regulations about this, companies have found many loop-holes and use a variety of types of dates to sell their products, none of which have anything to do with whether or not you’ll actually get sick from ingesting it. So what do all of the terms and dates really mean? Here’s a simple break down...

  • “Use by,” “Best before,” “Best if used by”: These terms are all referring to taste and flavor. When worded this way, the date has nothing to do with whether or not your food is bad or rotten. Rather, it is simply informing you of the date at which the product is at it’s best flavor. Seems a little silly, right? I mean, yes, we all want our food to be as flavorful as possible, but the average shopper sees a date and they assume they have until that date to eat the food or it will expire. So the next time you’re shopping, be sure to keep this little fact in mind!

  • “Sell by”: This term is actually just a term used by the retailers themselves. Stores use this date as a reference and a reminder to rotate their stock so that their older products are in the front and are more likely to sell first. It really has nothing to do with taste or how good the food actually is. As a side note: Most stores don’t have the time or manpower to rotate every single item in the store each time a new shipment comes in, but it is a good guide for the slower selling foods at least.

  • “Expiration date”: Now here’s the big one - the only term or date that actually means something important. When something says “expiration date” right on it, this generally means that you’ll want to eat that food by that date, unless you’re planning on preserving it in the freezer or by some other means. By freezing certain items, you can drastically extend their expiration dates. If you do this, though, you’ll then have to resort to other methods to determine whether or not your food is edible, as the expiration date will be invalid at this point.

How do we know if it’s okay to eat?

Source: Lifehacker

Okay, so we’ve established that the dates on most food products are just guides, so then how do we know if it’s safe to eat some of our older foods? Honestly, it pretty much comes down to common sense, personal opinion, and best judgement. For starters, the smell test is a great go-to option. If it smells bad, it’s probably a good idea to throw it out. Second, examine your food before eating it. You don’t need a date on a bag to tell you that your bread is bad. Use your eyes. If you see mold on it, don’t eat it. Proper refrigeration or freezing of meat can drastically prolong its shelf-life. Proper storage in general can add weeks or even months to most foods well beyond printed labels on packaging. People lived for decades without having to rely on printed dates, and you can too!


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Stephanie Mialki is a mommy of two under two, a fitness enthusiast, and a digital marketing guru. She spends all of her spare time….oh wait, what spare time? She has a passion for business building and has successfully assisted more than 20 entrepreneurs start their own companies.

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