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 dates.

“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,” she explained.

Key Terms and Phrases to Know

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 or similar medicinal food products such as oral nutritional supplements or meal replacements after its Use By date.

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

Packaged on, Manufactured on or Prepared on. Packaging dates are closely related to best before dates and are intended to give consumers an idea of how long a product will maintain it’s quality. These dates are used on food products with a shelf life of 90 days or less.

Sell by or Freeze by dates are other voluntary markings used in Canada specifically, and can help the consumer make decisions about purchasing and storing food.

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 and fish – use within 2-5 years of purchase


Purchase eggs before the Sell By or Expiration (EXP) date on the carton and use within 3-4 weeks of purchase. Refrigerate them in the original carton and store in the coldest part of the refrigerator, not in the door.

Robyn Barefoot, a registered dietitian and expert in reducing food waste, shared these guidelines for meat, fish and poultry:


Fresh meats such as beef, pork and lamb should be used within 2-4 days and kept refrigerated at 4 °C (40 °F). If it is brought home and placed directly in the freezer, it should be frozen at – 18 °C (0 °F) for up to 8-12 months. Ground meat and fresh seafood are an exception – due to their smaller surface area and increased exposure to oxygen, ground meats and fish such as scallops and shrimp should be kept in the fridge only 1-2 days before consumption and can last in the freezer for 2-3 months.


Lean and fatty fish (cod, flounder, salmon) should be used within 3-4 days when refrigerated. If freezing fish, lean white fish can be frozen up to 6 months but fatty fish such as salmon and trout only 2 months.


Use poultry within 2-3 days of purchase or freeze for 2-3 months.

“Ever unsure if a food is safe to eat? We know food waste should be kept to minimal, but do not risk your own health and safety. Contact the manufacturer for questions and concerns, and when in doubt, throw it out!” Barefoot advises.

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.

Originally published Nov. 19, 2013.