Food Dates and Safety 

By Laura Ritacco, RDN and Klair Urbin – Gleaners Nutrition Education Team 

We’ve all seen them on packages at the grocery store: Use-by, best- by, and sell-by dates. But have you ever wondered how these differ from an expiration date? If you think they are the same thing, it’s easy to make that mistake. But the good news is by learning about these different terms and what they indicate, you can actually extend the use of what may already be in your fridge, freezer, and pantry. Here’s a cheat-sheet on how to decode the dates listed on your food.  

Decoding Food Dates 1 

Sell-By: Used by manufacturers, the sell-by date tells the stores how long to display the product for sale. Not a safety date 

Use-By: The Use-By Date refers to when the product should be consumed at peak quality. Not a safety date, except when used for infant formula.  

Best-By: Indicates when a product will have the best flavor or quality. Not a safety date.  

Expiration Date: Found only on infant formula, baby food, vitamins, and medications. DO NOT buy or use after expiration date. 

Food Safety 

When it comes to food safety, an expiration date can indicate a general approach, but we should always also use our senses to evaluate if something is potentially spoiled or unsafe to eat. Look out for these signs of spoilage/hazards and do not consume if present2:  

  • Mold, foul odor, off-flavor, or texture 
  • Bulging, rusted, leaking, or deeply dented cans 
  • Cracked container, safety seal broken or missing, loose or missing lids.  

Safe Food Extension Dates of Common Canned Products After Food Code Date 

If a canned product uses “best-by”, “use-by”, or “sell-by” date, when is it still safe to eat them by? Let these general guidelines give you peace of mind when consuming past-date canned goods3:  

Canned Fruit > 1-2 Years 

Canned Beans, Meat, or Fish > 3 Years 

Tomatoes/Canned Vegetables with Tomatoes > 1-2 Years 

Canned Vegetables (with no tomatoes) > 2-3 Years 

Sources: 1. USDA FSIS: Food Product Dating. 2. USDA FSIS: Shelf-Stable Food Safety. 3. Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank: Shelf Life of Food Bank Products.