Food Expiration Dates: What's Safe, What's Not

By Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD, Cleveland Clinic

You stand in front of the refrigerator staring at a “sell by” date on food and have the internal debate: Do I throw it in the trash or take my chances?

You’re not the only one. Upwards of 91 percent of consumers have thrown food out based on the dates on packaging. But the dating system isn’t as clear as it seems. Nobody wants food poisoning — no fun — but few people want to waste food, either.

Let’s get some clarity.

Federal law does not require food dating in most cases, but 20 states do have laws about dates. In many cases, manufacturers add dates voluntarily.

In general, perishable foods such as meat, poultry, eggs and dairy get dates. But those dates aren’t always about spoilage. Some dates simply inform retailers when products are at their best for freshness, taste and texture.

The label types vary:

The “Sell by” date indicates how long a store should display a product on its shelves. But foods are still flavorful and safe to eat several days after this date if you store them properly.

The “Best if used by” date comes straight from manufacturers. The product will be freshest and have the best taste and texture if you eat it by this date. But this date does not refer to food safety.

The “Use by” date also comes from manufacturers. It’s the last date for peak quality. After this date, taste, texture and quality may go downhill, even if food safety does not.

The “Expiration” date is the only packaging date related to food safety. If this date has passed, throw the food out.

Still confused or concerned? Use the following rules of thumb for foods in your fridge or pantry.

Milk is typically safe for two to three days after the “use by” date. Keep it in the back of the fridge, where temperatures are typically coldest.

Butter will keep for two to three weeks after purchase.

Margarine will last for four to six months after purchase.

Eggs are safe for three to five weeks after purchase. Keep them in the back of the fridge, where temperatures are coldest, rather than in the door.

Chicken, ground meat and ground poultry will last for one to two days after purchase.

Pre-cooked poultry should keep for three to four days

Fish will last one to two days in the refrigerator after purchase.

Luncheon meat is safe for two to three weeks when it remains unopened. Use within three to four days after opening.

Dry pasta will last for one to two years after purchase.

Canned fruits and vegetables will last indefinitely. However, that rule goes out the window if they’re exposed to freezing temperatures or temperatures above 90°F. And be wary of damaged, dented or rusty packaging.

Also, remember that if you freeze something, it will last indefinitely, even if not at peak freshness, taste or texture.

Above all else, let common sense — and your senses —be your guide. If something smells rotten, curdles or turns a suspicious color, toss it in the trash.

Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD, is a registered dietitian and wellness manager for the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute.

Reprinted with permission of For more information, visit



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