Get the 411: What Food Expiration Dates Really Mean

Sell by, best if used on or before, use by, and guaranteed fresh. We all know that these terms have something to do with the freshness of food, but when it comes to defining them, things get a little tricky. Here's a quick guide to decoding expiration date terminology.

First things first, the best way to determine the freshness of your food is by using your senses, namely smell, taste and sight. Chances are, if what you're about to eat has gone bad, examine it and you'll know way before you have a chance to find the expiration date.  

This brings us to our second point. For the most part, expiration dates are optional. Apart from baby food and baby formula, most products are not required to use expiration dates and choose to do so on a voluntary level. Expiration dates are merely suggested guidelines for food freshness.  

Now that we've cleared all of that up, let's take a look at the different types of expiration dates out there and what they mean, as far as food safety goes.

A sell by date lets a store know how long an item should be displayed for sale. Sell by dates are generally assigned to perishable items such as dairy, meat, poultry and fish. It's a good idea to purchase items before the sell by date, but chances are they'll keep for a few days to a week after said date. Milk will generally stay fresh for longer than meat.  

The use by date is applied to shelf-stable products -- those that don't require refrigeration after opening, including canned and jarred goods. These products can be stored for a longer period of time, as long as they are unopened and stored in proper conditions.  

Packages marked with labels reading guaranteed fresh and best if used on (or before) followed by a date concern quality, not safety. Baked goods are often marked with these labels to ensure that they are consumed before they have a chance to go stale.  

Other freshness indicators include pack and born on dates. These let you know when a product was packaged. Generally applying to canned goods and beer (products with longer shelf lives), this will let you know just how long that can has been sitting around before you purchase it.  

Now that we've cleared up the lingo, here's a little run down of shelf lives for common perishable items:

Milk is usually good for up to a week after the sell by date. If you're unsure, use the old smell test or if it looks curdled, chances are its time has passed.

When buying meat, fish and poultry it's a good idea to either use it right away or stash it in the freezer. Poultry and seafood should be either used or frozen within a day or two, and pork and beef last between three to five days in the fridge. Again, this is a case where the nose knows. If it smells off, chances are it is.  

Eggs can last up to 3 to 5 weeks in the fridge. Simplest way to pick out a bad egg? Fresh eggs sink when submerged in water. A bad egg will float.

Butter can be kept well-wrapped and refrigerated for one month after the sell by date and for up to six to nine months in the freezer. When your butter begins to take on a cheesy aroma, it's time to pitch it.

For more information on expiration dates, check out and, both of which are great sources for learning the "what's what" of food storage. 

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