Expiration dates: How closely do we need to follow them?

Looking at expiration date on milk bottle

Most packaged foods and medicines list an expiration date. Often the words “Best if used by” will precede the date. Some products display a “sell by” or “use by” date. Still other times you might find only the numerical date, such as 05.24.20, or even a code you can’t easily decipher.

What do these labels represent? Is it a safety issue or simply a notice that the quality might decrease after the given date? Should I throw out anything that is past the date stamp, or is there some wiggle room?

Food date labeling

The Food Safety and Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) devotes a whole section of its website to questions like these. “USDA estimates that 30 percent of the food supply is lost or wasted at the retail and consumer levels,” the site says. “One source of food waste arises from consumers or retailers throwing away wholesome food because of confusion about the meaning of dates displayed on the label.”1

The USDA prefers the phrase “best if used by,” because research shows consumers understand this to mean the product will be of best quality before the indicated date.2

You might be surprised to learn that, with the exception of infant formula, you may consider a food product properly handled and stored in your home to be “safe and wholesome” even after passage of a “best if used by” date as long as no spoilage is evident. If the product doesn’t smell right, or has an off flavor or texture, discard it.3

Canned foods usually add a code to the date labeling, allowing tracking of the product and identifying it correctly in the event of food-safety recalls. Properly sealed and stored canned foods will usually keep from 1 to 5 years, depending on temperature, the food’s acidity level and other factors.4

What about eggs?

In many places, eggs have their own set of rules. Federal regulations don’t require use of either a “sell-by” or “expiration” date, but your state may require them. The USDA does require display of the date the eggs were packed. Keep your eggs in the coldest part of refrigerator, not the door.5

Some guidelines around meat

According to the USDA, a change in the color of meat and poultry does not necessarily mean the meat has spoiled. If color changes are accompanied by an off odor or a slimy or sticky feel, however, the meat should not be used.6

Drug expiration dates

Drug expiration dates are a little different from those on food date labels. According to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), drug expiration dates reflect the period during which the product “is known to remain stable.” A drug is considered stable if it retains its strength, quality and purity.7

The FDA cautions that there are several potential harms if you take an expired medicine or one that may have degraded because it wasn’t stored properly. The drug might not be as strong as it should be, or in some cases it could even undergo changes that create toxic compounds.8


  1. “Food Product Dating,” USDA, Food Safety and Inspection Service, USDA, Food Safety and Inspection Service, last accessed May 6, 2020, https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/food-labeling/food-product-dating/food-product-dating, opens new window.
  2. “Food Product Dating.”
  3. “Food Product Dating.”
  4. “Shelf-Stable Food Safety,” USDA, Food Safety and Inspection Service, last accessed March 8, 2020, https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/safe-food-handling/shelf-stable-food-safety/ct_index, opens new window.
  5. “Food Product Dating.”
  6. “The Color of Meat and Poultry,” USDA, Food Safety and Inspection Service, last accessed May 6, 2020, https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/wcm/connect/e8dad81f-f7fc-4574-893e-bae20cf8b215/Color_of_Meat_and_Poultry.pdf?MOD=AJPERES, opens new window.
  7. “Expiration Dates—Questions and Answers,” U.S. Food & Drug Administration, last accessed March 8, 2020, https://www.fda.gov/drugs/pharmaceutical-quality-resources/expiration-dates-questions-and-answers, opens new window.
  8. “Expiration Dates—Questions and Answers.”