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When does food really expire?

'When in doubt, throw it out.' While that sounds like a decidedly unscientific way to approach your groceries, it may be better than relying on the dates stamped on food.

By Stacy Johnson Jul 18, 2011 11:39AM

This post comes from Brandon Ballenger at partner site Money Talks News.


No food stays fresh forever. No, not even Twinkies. (Honey comes close, though.)


Knowing the expiration date is important to avoid getting sick and wasting money. But figuring out how long food actually lasts can be confusing. Labels use various phrases to describe shelf life, like "sell by," "use by" and "best by." Others seem to have only a date, with no explanation of what it means.


In the video below, Money Talks News reporter Jim Robinson deciphers the food code with food safety expert Manny Delgado. Check it out, and then read on for more about the expiration of different foods. 

The most surprising fact when it comes to food dating? With the exception of baby food and formula, the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn't require dates at all, nor is there a uniform system for using them. From the USDA website:

There is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States. Although dating of some foods is required by more than 20 states, there are areas of the country where much of the food supply has some type of open date and other areas where almost no food is dated.

The most important thing when it comes to food dating is to trust your senses. If it looks, smells or tastes off, toss it. Poor storage and packaging defects can cause food to go bad before its time. Assuming the food is properly preserved, though, here's a quick primer on how to use dates:


Sell-by dates. These dates aren't that helpful for predicting the expiration of food you already have at home -- a week or two past may be fine, but it's not exact. "Sell by" is telling shelf stockers when food needs to be moved from its regular place to the store's clearance area. Especially if you plan to cook or freeze the food immediately, sell-by dates can lead to great buys.


Use-by or best-by dates. These dates are basically quality guarantees by the manufacturer. The proper flavor and quality should last until at least this date if the product is properly stored. Often these products are fine to eat past the listed date, but they might not taste great. The USDA says, "'Use-by' dates usually refer to best quality and are not safety dates. But even if the date expires during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality if handled properly and kept at 40 °F or below." Save money by not throwing out food that's still safe if not quite as savory.
Expiration dates. While the federal government doesn't require these, some states do on certain products, especially dairy and often meat. This is one area where you don't want to cut corners. If the label explicitly mentions expiration, listen to it -- with one exception from "Cartons may carry an expiration date (EXP) beyond which the eggs should not be sold, but are still safe to eat." The USDA says you have three to five weeks from purchase.

That's how the dates work. But the USDA also has a convenient list of storage times, which is combined below with info Jim mentioned in the video.


Fresh or uncooked food in the fridge. Follow use-by date. For a sell-by date or no date, cook or freeze within this time frame:

  • Hard cheese -- two to three months. 
  • Eggs -- three to five weeks. 
  • Yogurt -- three weeks.
  • Soft cheese -- one week.
  • Cured ham -- five to seven days.
  • Beef, veal, pork, lamb -- three to five days.
  • Milk -- three to five days.
  • Poultry and ground meat -- one to two days.
  • Variety meats (liver, tongue, etc.) -- one to two days.
  • Sausage from pork, beef, or turkey -- one to two days.

Cooked or processed foods in the fridge. Follow use-by date. For a sell-by date or no date, cook or freeze within this time frame:

  • Canned ham -- nine months unopened, three to four days after opening.
  • Bacon or hot dogs -- two weeks unopened, seven days after opening.
  • Luncheon meat -- two weeks unopened, three to five days after opening.
  • Commercial sliced bread -- two weeks.
  • Cooked ham -- one week unopened, one week after opening (three days if sliced).
  • Cooked poultry or sausage -- three to four days unopened, three to four days after opening.


  • Canned fruits and vegetables -- two to five years.
  • High-acid foods (pickles, tomatoes) -- 12 to 18 months.
  • Commercial sliced bread -- one week.

For more info on food handling and preparation, safety, and labeling, visit the USDA. In the meantime, do what you've always done: "Here, honey, smell this. Is it still good?" 


More on Money Talks News and MSN Money:

Canned spam 9 years after opening and it will evolve into a malevolent life form
Jul 19, 2011 4:05PM

Hate to tell you this, but the milk that almost reaches the sell by date and is still in the store is collected, re-pasteurized and then turned into chocolate milk.


Yo - MSNBC - stop the annoying video adds - I turn everyone off and do not watch so what is the point of having them - this is the internet, if I wanted TV I would watch it!!!!!!!!!!!

Jul 21, 2011 10:45AM
I agree with wolfman 63, they do that with meat too, when it reaches it's due date they remove it and cook it and package it as something else.  The do it several times.
Jul 21, 2011 2:44PM
Should of added McDonald's burgers and fries.  I bet those can last years.
Jul 21, 2011 10:50AM

Do the bother giving twinkies a shelf life?


Don't twinkies last longer than radiation contamination?


What is the half life of twinkies anyway?

Jul 21, 2011 10:47AM
When you see things swimming around in your vinegar, it's time for the vinegar to go.
MRE'S will last for years and you eat them cold or sun warmed no stove or fire required..
MRE'S will last for years and you eat them cold or sun warmed no stove or fire required..
Naaah food never expires, especially not milk, it makes such a wonderful faste treat after 3 or 4 weeks in the sun, and orange juice, it ferments and has a tasty effervescence. Maybe Martha Stewart should do a segment on how food is always better after a few months without refrigeration.
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