A Guide to Expiration Dates
How long are canned, frozen, and leftover foods safe to eat? This expiration date guide answers all your questions.
"Sell By" vs. "Use By" Date Stamps
There’s no standardized system for food dating in this country, which means stamps on packaged foods can be baffling. Approximately 20 states require dates on some perishable foods, like meat and dairy. But depending on where you live, you may see “best if used by,” “sell by,” or nothing at all. (The one exception: infant formulas. Federal law requires an expiration date because the crucial nutritional benefits can deteriorate over time.) So what do the different labels mean? The most important are “use by” or “best if used by,” which are often included by the manufacturer to help consumers get top quality. An item will be freshest and tastiest if consumed by that date, but it will probably still be safe a few days after (stay within these food-storage guidelines). A “sell by” date is meant for the store; it tells a retailer when to pull an item from the shelves. When you buy packaged food, check to make sure the sell-by date hasn’t passed, then eat it within the time range recommended in this guide.
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