Food Expiration Dates – What Do They Mean?

With all of the discussion about food waste online, we reached out to registered dietitian and author of the Sound Bites BlogMelissa Joy Dobbins, MS, RDN, CDE, about how to understand food expiration dating.

Melissa Joy Dobbins, RD, RDN, CDE:

As a registered dietitian and former supermarket dietitian, I’ve received many questions about the different dates on food packages. Most people think the various dates refer to when a food will “go bad” or is “spoiled,” but sometimes the dates are simply an indication of quality and not food safety.

Clear definitions and guidelines can help people make more informed choices about when to discard food. If you’re not sure if a product should be discarded or not, it’s always a good option to contact the manufacturer with questions about a specific product.

“Open Date” uses a calendar date on a food product. The Open Date is not a safety date, instead, this label tells how long to display the product for sale at the store.

“Best if Used By (or Before)” date is recommended for best flavor or quality. This is not a date to purchase by, nor is it an indication that the product is unsafe after this date.

“Use By” date is the date recommended to use the product by in order to have the best quality. This date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product. Even after the “Use By” date, a food should remain safe and wholesome if it has been properly stored and handled.

The “Use By” date is required on infant formula because, over time, formula can separate and clog the bottle’s nipple. Do not use infant formulas after its “Use By” date.

“Closed or coded dates” are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer.

Canned foods

Canned foods are safe indefinitely except when they are exposed to freezing temperature or temperatures above 90° (32.2°C). A general rule is if the cans are not rusted, dented or swollen, they are safe for consumption; however, the following canned items are best used by the dates outlined below.

  • Canned tomatoes –  use within 12-18 months of purchase
  • Canned fruit –  use within 12-18 months of purchase
  • Canned vegetables – use within 2-5 years of purchase
  • Canned meat – use within 2-5 years of purchase


Purchase eggs before the “Sell By” or “Expiration” (EXP) date on the carton and use within 3-5 weeks of purchase. Refrigerate them in the original carton and store in the coldest part of the refrigerator, not in the door.

For more information:

Melissa Joy Dobbins MS, RDN, CDE, of Sound Bites, talks about the importance of understanding food labels.

Moldy Bagels” by JyntoJyntomizo is licensed under CC BY 2.0.