I forever ask my honey to give the sniff test to anything I pull out of the fridge that is questionably good. Pouring milk for breakfast… “Is this still good?” Last week’s dinner… “Sniff this, please.” There is nothing fuzzy on it, so it could be good. I have asked that question too often. “Is this…?” “Just throw it out!” Food in the fridge is one thing, but how do we know when food has expired in the grocery store? What date should be used?

  • Use By
  • Sell By
  • Best By
  • Freshness Date
  • Closed or coded dates

You might be surprised that sometimes a date has nothing to do with food safety. There is no uniform code for dating in the U.S., but there is a date on everything. No dating system is consistent, so let’s breakdown what those dates mean.

Use By: This date is usually a manufacturer suggestion. It doesn’t suggest a product is bad. We’re talking quality here. A food is best if used before this date. Shelf stable products like mustard, mayonnaise, peanut butter, salad dressings can be used past the “use by,” date. They may not be at their highest quality, but they are not spoiled. This is a guideline for the retailer to pull the product from the shelf.

Sell By: A “sell by” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before this date expires. This date has been determined by the manufacturer, and doesn’t have anything to do with food quality. Most sell by dates are found on meat, fish, poultry.

Best By: “Best by” strictly refers to the quality, not safety. Again, this is determined by the manufacturer. This date is recommended for best quality and flavor, but has nothing to do with food safety. This date is determined by the manufacturer, based on testing of the product and its viability on the shelf. Handling and storage guidelines can also be found on the label.

Freshness Date: Is most commonly found on bakery items. Ever eaten a stale donut? You understand this well. The donut will not hurt you a day after its freshness date, but it probably tasted a whole lot better the day before. The item is probably edible, but it is not at its peak freshness.

Closed or coded dates: These dates are manufacturer suggested and can be tricky to decipher. These often appear as a series of letters and numbers, jumbled together. It could be month-day-year MMDDYY, or something else entirely if the manufacturer uses the Julian calendar.

Dating is not required on food products, except infant formula and baby food, in the US. Food is guaranteed to have all the qualities represented by the label if used by the expired date.

With the exception of infant formula, food life can be extended by freezing it before the suggested date.

All of these dates are dependent on the conditions that bring food to the store, and from the store to your home. The dates assume supreme care has been taken, that products have been kept at the proper temperature. Yada, yada.

Eggs, for instance, have a suggested date on the carton, but I have used the float test more times then I can count. I fill a big glass of water, and if the egg sinks I use it. If the egg floats, then it gets handled with extreme care until trash day. Ever smell a rotten egg? Yep, you understand why.

The USDA suggests these guidelines for uncooked and refrigerated food:

Refrigerator Storage of Fresh or Uncooked Products
Product Storage Times After Purchase
Poultry 1 or 2 days
Beef, Veal, Pork and Lamb 3 to 5 days
Ground Meat and Ground Poultry 1 or 2 days
Fresh Variety Meats (Liver, Tongue, Brain, Kidneys, Heart, Chitterlings) 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


Refrigerator Storage of Processed Products Sealed at Plant
Processed Product Unopened, After Purchase After Opening
Cooked Poultry 3 to 4 days 3 to 4 days
Cooked Sausage 3 to 4 days 3 to 4 days
Sausage, Hard/Dry, shelf-stable 6 weeks/pantry 3 weeks
Corned Beef, uncooked, in pouch with pickling juices 5 to 7 days 3 to 4 days
Vacuum-packed Dinners, Commercial Brand with USDA seal 2 weeks 3 to 4 days
Bacon 2 weeks 7 days
Hot dogs 2 weeks 1 week
Luncheon meat 2 weeks 3 to 5 days
Ham, fully cooked 7 days slices, 3 days; whole, 7 days
Ham, canned, labeled “keep refrigerated” 9 months 3 to 4 days
Ham, canned, shelf stable 2 years/pantry 3 to 5 days
Canned Meat and Poultry, shelf stable 2 to 5 years/pantry 3 to 4 days

If food has developed a different appearance, texture, color, or smell than it should ordinarily have. Don’t hesitate, just throw it out.

Are these guidelines simple and straightforward, or is there more to chew on? Don’t trust the guidelines? Has Tom Sawyer “Whitewashed” us again? Why do meat and dairy products have certain guidelines and subsidies? Rest assured I’ve already considered those questions. Do you want to know more? Please comment below, then visit again for following the money to establish guidelines and expiration dates.

Tired of guidelines? Here are ten foods you can count on to break the rules. Nibble on them.