Shelf Life & Product Date Labeling

Share article Shelf Life & Product Date Labeling on:

The USDA estimates we waste 30 percent of all food due to consumers throwing away wholesome food due to expiration dates. Manufacturers provide dating to help consumers decide when food is of best quality. With the exception of infant formula, dates are not an indicator of the product’s safety and are not actually required by federal law.

Examples of commonly used phrases:

Best if Used By/Before” indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a date determined for safety. “Sell–By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date. “Use–By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date, except when used on infant formula.


Shelf Life & Product Date Labeling With the exception of infant formula, if the date passes during home storage, a product should still be safe and wholesome if handled properly until the time spoilage is obvious. Spoiled foods will develop an off odor, flavor or texture due to naturally occurring spoilage bacteria. Spoilage bacteria cause foods to develop unpleasant characteristics, but do not cause illness. A change in the color of meat or poultry is not actually an indicator of spoilage. Some state egg laws may require a “Sell-By” or “Expiration” date, but it is not a federal regulation. Cans must exhibit a code or the date of canning, which is mainly used as a way to track the product. These codes are not meant for the consumer to interpret as a “Best if Used By” date. Cans that are dented, rusted or swollen should be discarded. In an effort to reduce food waste, put your newer items in the back of your refrigerator or pantry. That way, older items will be front and center and you’ll be more likely to use them before they go bad. It’s important that consumers understand that food products are usually safe to consume past the date on the label. Evaluate the quality of your food products prior to eating, and discard if there are noticeable changes in wholesomeness. NOTE: Do not buy or use baby formula after its “Use-By” date. To learn more, check out Food Safety and Inspection Service’s information on food product dates.