Food Expiration Dates: What Do They Really Mean

Milk carton expiration

The semester is wrapping up and it’s time to pack up your stuff. If you have any extra food stored in your dorm room that has been collecting dust, it may be about time to toss it in the trash. Before you start randomly pitching food, though, take the time to check the dates labeled on the food. According to a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic, around 90% of Americans throw out food prematurely due to confusion over when it really expires. So, what do “sell by” and “use by” dates really mean, and how long do certain foods actually last?

“Sell by” dates are used by grocery stores so that they can rotate their products; the newer products are placed in the back so that those with earlier dates are sold first. Although “sell by” dates are used to ensure the freshness of the products consumers are buying, they are not an indicator of when a food spoils.

“Use by” dates are labeled for the consumer’s benefit in ensuring that they are eating their food at its freshest peak. However, similar to “sell by” dates, “use by” dates do not actually indicate when a food has gone bad. For instance, canned and dry goods are often in fine condition to eat for up to six months to one year after their “use by” date. Perishables such as dairy, eggs, and meat spoil much more quickly.

Follow these rules of thumb to assure you are not eating bad or stale food:

Eggs can last three to five weeks in the refrigerator, which is often past their “use by” date.

Milk after being opened lasts around five to seven days past the printed “use by” date, although don’t push it too long because no-one likes unexpectedly drinking spoiled milk. Yuck!

Canned goods are often perfectly fine to eat for a year after the “use by” date when they are unopened. After opened, they typically last for about a week in the fridge.

Cereal can last up to three months even after it has been opened, as long as it is stored an air-tight container to prevent staleness.

Expiration dates can seem random and ambiguous, so keep these guidelines in mind as you pack up your dorm room. Bottom line, though, no one wants to eat spoiled food.

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