Has This Gone Bad? A Full Guide to Making Sense of Food Expiration Dates

by Molly Hembree, MS, RDN, LD

Last Updated: April 7, 2020

Right now, more than ever, struggling with an international health crisis makes us increasingly aware of food availability and usage. We are called to be good stewards of our rations and avoid wasting food just because we suspect it may be close to the end of its life. In order to do this, however, we need clarification if a food is still okay to eat. So, how do we make sense of all these numbers and letters on our food packages? What is the difference between “Best Buy”, “Use By”, “Better If Used By”, “Best Before”, “Good Through”, “Expires On”, “Sell By”, just a plain date, or what appears to be a combination phrase of all of them: “Best if Used By”? And do we need to pay attention to other codes on the container?

Manufacturing Codes

“Closed Dating”, which is a form of date coding that is specific to facility day and time of production, shouldn’t impact end consumer decision-making in purchasing or consuming a product. The additional information you may find on a label, such as a “lot code,” even indicates exact batches or production lines of food, so if a problem is detected, the shift, location, or assembly line can be identified. This can help in the case of finding the origin of a foodborne illness outbreak or to determine where a unique run of products was underfilled or had a sticky label that wasn’t aligned properly. These numbers are not indicators of whether or not a food is safe to eat, but consumers often think they are, which can lead to confusion.

Toll on the Economy

A staggering $161 billion of food in America is thrown away every year, between the food industry itself and consumers. That is about one-third of all the food produced. It’s estimated that an avoidable 20 percent of all food pitched inside our homes is due to uncertainty if food is still alright to eat.

The Future Looks Bright

The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has recently agreed that date labels on packaged foods aren’t user-friendly. In fact, the FDA announced in May 2019 that it favors this single date designation to guide consumers when they open that pantry or refrigerator door: “Best If Used By.” The Date Labeling Working Group of “Rethink Food Waste Through Economics & Data” (ReFED) is working to accelerate the adoption of the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), and Grocery Manufacturer Association (GMA)’s voluntary date labeling standards. ReFED has pinpointed a quality date label: “BEST If Used By,” and a discard date label: “USE By” which they, along with major FDA and USDA food regulatory bodies, want to see replacing the current 50+ date descriptors seen in the food industry. The discard label would also include information about freezing if appropriate: “USE By: X, FREEZE By: X”. Manufacturers then have the option to add additional guidance with the language: “Once opened, eat within X days”.

Zero Hunger Zero Waste

Kroger’s commitment to our “Zero Hunger Zero Waste” program aims to eliminate hunger in communities we serve and to eliminate waste across our company by 2025. Whether this be through landfill diversion, improved supply chain management, more recycling, accelerated food donations, or increased precision with our grocery store stocking efforts, the hope is we can be more intentional with every ingredient or food produced for our company. This includes positioning our private label line of products (“Our Brands”), to change the grim food waste trajectory by instead establishing a formal standardization and simplification of product date labels.

In the Meantime

For now, be sure to call the maker of your food product if you are hesitant whether your food is still safe to eat based on a confusing date stamp. The company that makes your food should know how to interpret your date code and provide reassurance about the timeframe in which it should be eaten. For general guidance on number of days after a “Sell By” date a food can still be eaten, yogurt is 5-7 days, milk is 7 days, eggs are 3 to 5 weeks, and red meat/pork should be cooked or frozen within 3 days.

Disclaimer: This information is educational only and not providing healthcare recommendations. Please see a healthcare provider.

Molly Hembree, MS, RDN, LD

Molly Hembree, MS, RDN, LD

Sometimes the answer is easy: Eat more plants. Plant-forward eating is trendy not just for its health benefits, but also its focus on sustainability, fresh flavor, and wholesome ingredients. Molly has relied on plants as her only fuel for the last seven years and can help you rediscover your love affair with veggies, feel confident you’re getting plenty of protein, or figure out what to do with jackfruit. Whether you’re a vegan veteran or curious carnivore, Molly’s expert food ideas will get you excited to feature plants on your plate.