You've Been Reading Food Expiration Dates ALL Wrong

egg with expiration date stamped on it

You know what's a mess? Food expiration dates. Right? Have you ever looked at a label reading "sell by" and wondered what exactly that meant? It's a label for the store, not for us. It doesn't really tell us how long that food can sit in our refrigerator or shelves. If you buy that milk on the day of the "sell by" date, how long do you have to drink it all? I know that information is out there, somewhere. You can probably Google it. But why isn't it on the milk carton, where it would be most helpful?

This is the main kvetch in the new report, "The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America." The basic idea of the report is just that -- confusing and inconsistent labeling lead to food waste. Ooh, I hate wasting food because that means wasted MONEY. They recommend standardizing the labeling system, which is smart. But what do we do in the meantime?


guide to food expiration dates1. Look carefully at those dates. This may be obvious to many of you, but I make this mistake all the time -- I just pull things off the shelf and don't think about the date. Follow the "use by" dates, but remember, "sell by" doesn't mean the same thing as "use by." (See below.)

2. Look for foods with the latest expiration date. Grocery stores will often stock the older merch in front of the newer. If you're worried about food spoiling and just want to play it safe, it may be worth digging into the back row to see if there's a fresher batch of whatever you're buying.

3. Sniff test. I mean... it's not foolproof, but it can be remarkably accurate. Just be sure to do that sniff test in a separate container. For example, pour a little milk into a cup and sniff that. Otherwise, the milk around the spout ages a little faster because it gets more air, and you could end up throwing out your milk unnecessarily.

4. Follow the USDA's recommendations for how long you can store the following foods at about 40 degrees based on their "sell-by" dates:

  • Poultry: 1 to 2 days
  • Beef, veal, pork, and lamb: 3 to 5 days
  • Ground meat and ground poultry: 1 or 2 days
  • Fresh variety meats: 1 or 2 days
  • Cured ham, cook-before-eating: 5 to 7 days
  • Sausage from pork, beef, or turkey, uncooked: 1 or 2 days
  • Eggs: 3 to 5 weeks

Beyond these recommendations, milk will usually last about a week

Do you find food expiration labels confusing?


Images via carbonnyc/Flickr and liz west/Flickr


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