Is It Time to Throw It Out?

— Written By Susan Condlin and last updated by Kay Morton

While grocery shopping, do you look at the dates on food products before placing the item in your cart? If you locate a date on the product just what does that tell you? While some states may require dating of a product, the federal government does not make this requirement.

The one exception is infant formula. Federal regulations require a “use-by” date on the product label of infant formula under FDA inspection. The date ensures quality nutrition and consistency in order to pass through an ordinary bottle nipple. If stored too long, formula can separate and clog the nipple preventing the baby from receiving adequate nutrients. Formula is dated for both quality and nutrition retention. The nutritive value could be significantly reduced if sold past the expiration date.

There is no universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States. If food products do have a date it will be one of four types:

  1. “Sell by” date: This date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the sell-by date expires.
  2. “Best before” date: The manufacturer recommends that you eat the food by this date to obtain the best flavor and quality. This is not the date by which you should purchase the food, nor is it a safety date.
  3. “Use by” date: This is the last date recommended for consumption of the product while at peak quality. The manufacturer determines the use-by date.
  4. “Closed or “coded” date: This type of date is stamped on a food package as part of a packing number used by the manufacturer and enables tracking of the product, rotation of stock and to locate products in the event of a recall.

 A fifth “trendy” date has emerged – “Born on”. Introduced by Anhueser-Busch the manufacture recommends consuming their product within 110 days of this date for peak flavor and freshness. You may see this type of labeling on other products.  

As for the Universal Product Codes (UPC) or bar codes, which appear on packages as black lines of varying widths above a series of numbers. These codes are not required by regulation and are on most labels for scanning prices at the supermarkets. This coding system is used for inventory purposes and marketing information. When read by a scanner, they can reveal specific information as the manufacturer’s name, product name, size of product and price. The barcode we see in the United States is not used for dating the product or identifying the country of origin and I’m unaware of any book or website that tells how to translate the codes into consumer useful information.

 Many products will be safe to consume after their sell-by and best before dates if they have been handled properly and have been kept at a safe temperature (41°F or below for refrigerated products). However, for best quality we recommend you consume a food product before its use-by date.


So just how long can you keep food?  That will depend on a wide array of factors: the type of food, its packaging, storage conditions, how you handled it, etc. USDA has a handy storage chart on the web at


For optimum food safety, follow these guidelines:

  • Always refrigerate perishable food within 2 hours
  • Check the temperature of your refrigerator and freezer with an appliance thermometer. The refrigerator should be at 40 °F or below and the freezer at 0 °F or below.
  • Cook or freeze fresh poultry, fish, ground meats, and variety meats within 2 days; other beef, veal, lamb, or pork, within 3 to 5 days.
  • In general, high acid canned food such as tomatoes, grapefruit, and pineapple can be stored on the shelf for 12 to 18 months. Low acid canned food such as meat, poultry, fish, and most vegetables will keep 2 to 5 years — if the can remains in good condition and has been stored in a cool, clean, and dry place.

 The keys to keeping food safe are to keep it clean, store it properly, use it up and when in doubt through it out.  And by the way, if it is not safe for you, it is not safe for your pets.

Susan Condlin is County Extension Director for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.