Do I really need to throw food away by the date printed on the carton? If not, how long do I have before it really goes bad? Here’s what I found that may surprise you.

Hilary Meyer
Updated March 09, 2020
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Some people have a fear of snakes. Others are afraid of heights. For me, it's spoiled food. I'm not claiming that this fear of mine is at all rational, but do I really need to be concerned?

There comes a time when everyone has to face their fears. And that's going to start with a little digging into expiration dates. Do I really need to throw food away by the date printed on the carton? If not, how long do I have before it really goes bad? And what does "going bad" really mean? Is it unsafe?

Here's what I found that may surprise you:

1. Expiration dates aren't required

I assumed that there is a regulatory process involved with expiration dates-hard and fast rules. This is not the case. According to the USDA, expiration dates on food aren't required by the federal government. Although some states do require it, and there are dating regulations when it comes to infant formula.

2. Different dates have different meanings

"Sell-by" "Best if used by" and "use-by" have similar, but slightly different meanings. None of these are meant to be safety dates for the food (other than infant formula), but rather describe quality.

A "Sell-by" date is geared more toward the retailer, indicating to them when they should rotate product off the shelves.

A "Best if used by" date is an indicator of quality (the food will not be "bad" after that date).

A "Use-by" date is the last day the manufacturer recommends using the product based on quality, not safety.

3. How long will my food last if it goes past the expiration date?

That depends on what it is and how it was handled. The USDA recommends using products that display the use-by date by that time. For sell-by dates that go past at home, you can continue to store the food for a short amount of time depending on what it is. Some common products are: ground meat and poultry (1-2 days past the date), beef (3-5 days past the date), eggs (3-5 weeks past the date).

If you're concerned about food safety, use your nose. If you bought raw chicken and you know it's spent 2 days in the refrigerator after the sell-by date, smell it. If it's bad, you'll know right away. It's the same for milk. I may be good for several days after the sell-by date, but if there's a sour smell, you know it's bad. Otherwise, make sure to keep items in their original packaging to keep track of the dates, or make sure you have a good labeling system so you're cooking chicken or other foods at peak freshness.

4. Could food lose its nutritional value before it's expired?

That depends on the food. Take orange juice, for example. One cup of OJ can offer a full day's dose of vitamin C. But after it's been open for a week, it loses the antioxidant benefits from exposure to air and light. (And that could happen even before it reaches its expiration date.)

Some foods do lose nutrients when exposed to oxygen in the air, and your food may lose a little more nutrition when it's cooked. Aim to eat your fresh fruits and vegetables soon after purchasing them, but don't sweat nutrient losses too much.

5. Is food safe after it expires?

Expiration dates refer to quality, not safety. For example, if a refrigerated product was kept below 40 degrees and was well packaged and handled, it may look and smell a little funny, but would not necessarily be considered unsafe. If it was left out at room temperature for hours or contaminated by something else, it may harbor harmful bacteria that could cause food-borne illness and it would not be safe to eat.

Perishable foods should never be thawed on the counter for longer than 2 hours because, while the center of the food may remain frozen, the outer surface may enter the Danger Zone, the range of temperatures between 40° and 140°F, in which bacteria multiply rapidly. For this same reason, you should never eat meat, poultry, eggs or sliced fresh fruits and vegetables that have been left out for more than 2 hours (1 hour in temperatures hotter than 90°F). But this could happen to any food and is not related to expiration dates.