What do the dates on food packages mean? Are they expiration dates?

Answer From Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D.

Dates on food packages aren't expiration dates. They're intended to ensure quality — not safety.

So what do the dates mean?

  • Sell by. This date tells the grocer how long to display the product for sale. It's not a safety date, but it can tell you if the item has been sitting on the shelf longer than other items.
  • Best if used by (or before). This date is recommended for best flavor or quality. There may be a decline in the quality of the food after the use by date.
  • Use by. Set by the manufacturer, this date indicates quality. There may be a decline in the quality of the food after the use by date.
  • Closed or coded dates. Typically seen on canned and boxed foods, these are packing numbers used by manufacturers. They may be used in food recalls.

Rather than relying on these dates, make it a habit to use or freeze perishable food within a few days of purchase. Freezing ensures safety indefinitely, but quality will decline over time.

Understanding food dates can help you reduce food waste and save on grocery bills.

July 01, 2021 See more Expert Answers