Double-check: Is it really an expiration date?
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Not every date you see on your food is an expiration date. Here are four common food label dates you may see in the grocery store and what they really mean, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA):
Sell-by date: How long the store can display the product
Use-by date: The last date that the product is at peak quality
Best if used by date: The best date for flavor and quality
Closed by date or coded dates: The numbers and letters used by the manufacturer to indicate the day and time the product was packed
None of these are expiration dates nor do they indicate whether food is safe to eat or not. In fact, the FDA allows manufacturers to sell almost any food past these dates, with baby formula being the exception. What’s more, manufacturers aren’t required to put any of these dates on their food; the decision is totally up to them. But, if it’s any consolation, the FDA realizes these labels are confusing and would like the food industry to move to one standard phrase: “Best if used by.”
Why food expiration dates matter
Looks and smells can sometimes be deceiving (taking a whiff of the milk carton is not an exact science), which is why those expiration dates stamped on the packaging can guide you in the right direction and help prevent illness. From creamy cheeses to sandwich staples, it’s best to toss these foods once they’re past their given expiration date unless you want to roll the dice on an extra sick day. On the other side of the spectrum, these are probably the 11 foods you’re tossing too soon.