What Do Food Expiration Dates Really Mean?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Best before, Use by, Sell by… lions and tigers and bears, OH MY!  Collectively termed "Expiration dates", those little numerals stamped on everything from milk to pain medication have taught us that nothing lasts forever (except, perhaps, plastic bags and true love).  But, what do the dates really mean?  And, do we truly need to fear them?

Before embarking on a wholesale purge of your pantry, you should know that “best before” dates are voluntarily provided by the manufacturer as an indication of an un-opened non-perishable product’s peak quality.  They have nothing to do with safety or shelf life, but are more an informal guarantee of product quality.  Those cookies 9 months past their best before date may taste like sawdust, but they probably won’t result in an unscheduled trip to the ER.

“Sell by” and “use by” dates, on the other hand, are used for perishable items such as meat, milk and poultry. The sell by date indicates the time frame within which retailers can display the product for sale.  The Use by date specifies the time frame the product should be safe for consumption.  Unlike peanut butter, milk does not come in ‘chunky’ format.  5 Days past its use by date?  Pitch it!

Medications, whether over the counter or prescription, generally have true expiration dates.  They have ingredients that may become unstable or ineffective over time, or under improper storage conditions, and should not be used once expired.  Baby food and infant formula also fall under this category as they are nutritionally balanced for safety and health.  Like medications, they too are government-regulated, and their expiration dates should be considered cast in stone. Thou shalt not feed the baby strained peas from a jar past its expiration date!

View more articles like this.