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It may surprise you to learn that, with the exception of infant formula and baby food, the federal government does not require manufacturers to provide an expiration date on food. Neither does the government bar grocery stores from selling products past their expiration date. Federal law does dictate that food meant for sale in the US must be wholesome and fit for human consumption.

So how can grocery stores get away with selling food that has passed its expiration date? It’s because a stamped-on expiration date is not equal to a self-destruct date. Typically, an expiration date is meant solely to indicate freshness or quality of a food item. After the expiration date that is set by the manufacturer, the product is past its peak quality.

What Exactly Does an Expiration Date Mean?

There are several types of “expiration” dates typically found on the foods you purchase, and they each have a slightly different meaning.

Dating Type

Definition

“Sell-By”

Used by the retailer to indicate how long to display an item.

“Best if Used By (or Before)”

Product is at its optimal flavor or quality if used by the date indicated.

“Use-By”

Date determined by the manufacturer as the last date recommended for peak quality of the product.

“Guaranteed Fresh”

Typically used on bakery items to indicate last day of optimal quality or freshness for the product.

“Born On”

Manufacture date used on products which lose quality over time, such as beer.

Coded Dates

Code representing the date on which the item was packaged, usually found on canned goods and eggs.

None of these dates indicates that food spoils, or becomes unfit on the date displayed on the packaging. On the contrary, many foods can be safely consumed after they have passed their expiration dates, and sometimes foods can become unsafe before they expire. This begs the question, how long can you keep food once it has reached its expiration date?

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Part two of this series, Handle with Care, explains storage conditions and times for various food items, and how to insure that they stay safe even if they have reached or exceeded their expiration date.