The TRUTH about Shelf Life, Expiration Dates, and Use-by Dates

Milk Expiration Date


What is the difference between all these crazy dates posted on our food and water???

SHELF LIFE-    refers to the length of time a food/water product can be stored, IF properly canned, stored, and proper temperature is maintained.  Example-  Freeze Dried Food in a sealed #10 can stored in a cool, dark, moisture/pest free environment can last up to 25-30 years.  Root crops (carrots, potatoes, turnips, beets, etc) store for very long periods of time if kept in a root cellar (somewhere cool and dark with very, very, little moisture).  IDEAL STORAGE CONDITIONS-  COOL (40F to 60F- temps higher than this destroy nutrients and cause spoilage), DARK (no sunlight that destroys nutrients), DRY (no moisture that causes rust and bacterial growth, and PEST FREE (no bugs or rodents).


EXPIRATION DATE–  by law (USDA/FDA) require only infant formula and medications to have a true expiration date.  This is to prevent food-borne illnesses in infants that are incapable of fighting off a severe case of food poisoning as well as to maintain high nutrient values for those growing little bodies and brains, and because some medication will deteriorate into a dangerous chemical form past the expiration date and should not be taken. (Example- Amoxycillian antibiotics will deteriorate past its expiration date into a deadly poison).  Product that has an expiration date that is not baby formula or medications/chemicals, is not regulated by the USDA/FDA and is printed by courtesy of the manufacturer of the product.


BEST IF USED BY DATE-   Also known as SELL BY DATE, this date is put on food and water products for several reasons.

1) The grocery store wants to move that item as quickly as possible so they can re-stock their shelves with incoming food orders. They are all about making money and selling products at their freshest insures the grocery store will make money with not a lot of waste.

2) Some foods, while they do not go “bad” (rancid/rotten), they do tend to lose a little quality or texture. Example-  Lettuce or leafy greens may not be as crisp, but are still edible.  Bread may be a little stale, but is not moldy.  Bananas turn soft and oxidize (turn brown/black), but are perfectly edible.

3) Some foods will go bad about a week after the SELL BY DATE/ BEST IF USED BY DATE. Example-  milk will begin to curdle or sour.  Some folks use soured raw milk (not pasteurized) for baking and other cooking uses

4)This date is to inform the consumer when the “peak of freshness” is in relation to the product there are purchasing.  Example- We know that canned beans might have a SELL BY DATE of a year, but those beans can easily last between 5 to 7 years on the shelf if the can is not dented, bloated, or rusted, and is stored properly. See above Shelf Life for Ideal Storage Conditions.



THEN DO IT THE FOOD SERVICE INDUSTRY WAY-  Want to be safe with the foods in your refrigerator and pantry?  Then follow the Food Safety protocols that restaurants and other food service locations do-

1) Rotate all your food.  This is called FIFO- First In First Out.  This means if you bought a half gallon of milk on Aug. 18th, and then purchased another half gallon of milk on Aug 24th, you should use up the milk bought on Aug 18th FIRST, prior to OPENING/USING the milk bought on Aug 24th. This rotation method insures you don’t use product that is extremely old (because it keeps getting put/shoved to the back of the fridge or pantry.

2) Label and date Everything!  In conjunction with food rotation above, restaurants label what a product is (you can use some plain tape and a marker to do this) with the name of the product, the date is was made/purchased/delivered, and a date that is no more than 7 DAYS past the date it was made/purchased/delivered as the date it needs to be consumed by or thrown out.  Example-  I made an apple pie and store it in a plastic pie container in my refrigerator. I put a label on the container with the following:  APPLE PIE, Made Aug 10th. Use by Aug 17th.    This lets me know that as long as the apple pie is stored in the refrigerator, I have until Aug 17th to eat the pie or throw it out.  Don’t let someone convince you that you have to use certain items in only 3 or 4 days. You have up to 7 days (if you store it in your refrigerator) to consume that item before wasting it in the trash can. This includes left overs that you cooled down immediately, and then labeled and stored in the refrigerator. (Never put hot food in a container and throw in the refrigerator, you are asking to make yourself sick) Always cool the food down quickly either with an ice bath or by spreading it thin in a large container, before refrigerating.)

 3) Time & Temperature Control-  I could go into a lengthy section on Time & Temperature Control that restaurants use in every step of food production (prepping, cooking, cooling, storing, etc) and perhaps I will in another post at another time, but I will hit on one major point,  If you have food product that is not meant for storage outside of a refrigerator (crackers, baking mixes, spices, unopened canned goods, etc are all fine sitting in your pantry) then remember to not leave it sit out of the refrigerator for more than 4 hours!  When you hit the 4 hour mark, you should assume that it has been contaminated with bacteria and needs to be thrown away.  Remember that Apple Pie I labeled up above?  Let’s assume I take it out of the refrigerator, I cut a couple slices out of it for my family to eat.  I have only 4 hours to eat those slices (and the entire pie!) or get them back in the refrigerator, otherwise at the 4 hour mark I need to throw them away because they are contaminated with possible bacteria that cause food-borne illness.  Yes some folks have kept food out on the counter top longer than 4 hours and lived to tell about it, but let’s be safe for safety’s sake and stick to the 4 hour rule that the FDA and restaurants all over the country are mandated to follow.  It’s just easier.



The best thing to do is to follow the Expiration Date if the product is baby formula or medication; trust your eyes, nose, and tastebuds on everything else that has gone past the Best If Used By/Sell By Date; and do everything you can to extend the Shelf Life of your food (especially if you are putting the food up for long term storage  ie- prepping).   If the food has an off-odor, doesn’t look right (looks oily or off-color), doesn’t smell right (your nose will let you know), or has turned into a fur-bearing mammal (mold), you probably should throw it out.   As for medication- NEVER throw medication down the toilet or sink!!!  This contaminates our water supply and reduces the effectiveness of the water treatment at the treatment plant.  Always throw meds in the trash or give to your pharmacist to dispose of properly.

WEB RESOURCE FOR SHELF LIFE:   has great references for Shelf Life of food!



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