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ANSWERED on Mon 24 Sep 2007 - 11:29 am UTC by Patricia

Question: When are expiration dates really expiration dates?

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 23 Sep 2007 21:36 UTCSun 23 Sep 2007 - 9:36 pm UTC 

I have long suspected that expiration dates are way conservative in order to force people to throw out and buy more food even when it's perfectly fine to eat.

Yesterday I wanted to make spaghetti. I found a bottle of spaghetti sauce that had an expiration date of 2003. I looked at the sauce. It looked fine. I opened the bottle and it smelled fine. I dumped out a bit and it all looked fine. I tasted it and it tasted fine.

I then ate a full plate of spaghetti covered in this 4-year-past-expired sauce and it tasted delicious. It is now about 14 hours later and I feel fine.

Now, I know that milk expiration dates are, if anything, not conservative enough. (I've had bad experiences with milk before. I drink soy milk now.) But, that's because milk isn't in a hermetically sealed container like canned goods and bottled goods are.

Also, some foods can practically be left out on a warm day without deteriorating much (e.g. dry pasta) while others start to evolve into new lifeforms if you look away for a moment (e.g. mayonnaise).

Are there any web pages that list various canned and bottled food products and how long they are still safe to eat compared to their expiration dates?


Toby Lee Spiegel 


 24 Sep 2007 06:22 UTCMon 24 Sep 2007 - 6:22 am UTC 

Hi happyengineer,

Please let me know if the following information answers your question.



Business Week A Guide to Shelf Life

Click on the images for a slide show

"For grocery products such as dairy and meat, knowing the “sell by,” “best by,” or “use by” guidelines can help you consume with confidence."

Best regards,
tlspiegel / Toby Lee




 24 Sep 2007 11:29 UTCMon 24 Sep 2007 - 11:29 am UTC 

Hi Happy Engineer,

Generally, dates on food refer to quality rather than safety and most experts recommend using your common sense when deciding on whether to eat or toss. "Sell by" and "Best before" dates refer to quality while "Use by" is similar to an Expiration date (e.g., on medicine) and should be consumed before that date.

Types of Dates
* A "Sell-By" date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.
* A "Best if Used By (or Before)" date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
* A "Use-By" date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.
* "Closed or coded dates" are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer.
What Do Can Codes Mean?
"Cans must exhibit a packing code to enable tracking of the product in interstate commerce. This enables manufacturers to rotate their stock as well as to locate their products in the event of a recall.
These codes, which appear as a series of letters and/or numbers, might refer to the date or time of manufacture. They aren't meant for the consumer to interpret as "use-by" dates. There is no book which tells how to translate the codes into dates.
Cans may also display "open" or calendar dates. Usually these are "best if used by" dates for peak quality.
In general, high-acid canned foods such as tomatoes, grapefruit and pineapple can be stored on the shelf 12 to 18 months; low-acid canned foods 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, dry place."

The University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences
What do the dates really mean?
Food-product dates can be confusing. Here's what they mean.
"Old dates on food products may not mean the food should be tossed to the trash. A University of Georgia food specialist said some foods are good for longer."
"A sell-by, expiration or use-by date tells the store how long to display a product for sale," said Elizabeth Andress of the UGA Extension Service. "Buy a product before a sell-by date, but it is still safe to use (after then)."
"If a product has a use-by date, however, pay attention. "In particular, never buy or use baby formula or food after its use-by date," Andress warned.
Unlike the other labels, the use-by date it is the last day the manufacturer recommends for the safe use of a food product."

Expiration date on food
Is there a law about the sale of perishable items past their coded expiration date?
"Coded expiration dates on foods are generally used to protect a company against liability related to product quality, which is not necessarily related to product safety. This is different than the expiration dates on drugs, where there are many issues of safety and potency. In foods it is not as critical an issue from the viewpoint of safety. For example, milk held past the expiration date may be clotted and smell, but it is almost certainly safe - just as yogurt and buttermilk is. A canned biscuit past its expiration date may explode out of the package and smell of alcohol, but it could be cooked and eaten with no ill effects. I cannot think of an instance where the code date on a food product is really a safety date."
Douglas L. Holt
Food Science Program
State Extension Specialist for Food Safety

"Yes, expiration dates are not required on food items.  Food manufacturers often apply expiration dates to their products as an indicator for freshness and quality (e.g. use by such and such date)."
"...And generally, expiration dates are not a factor in most foodborne illness cases."
Marsha A. Present
Safety Manager
Health, Safety & Risk Management
WI Department of Natural Resources
(608) 267-3122

Food Storage Guide  . . . Answers the Question . . .
"This publication provides handling tips and recommendations for storing food in your cupboards, refrigerator or freezer. Beyond the guidelines, though, you still have to rely on some old-fashioned common sense. And remember the most basic of rules: When in doubt, throw it out."
- spaghetti,macaroni,etc. 2 years   Once opened, store in
- egg noodles             6 months   airtight container.

Emory Healthcare
Food Expiration Dates: What Do They Really Mean?
To Toss or Not to Toss
"The expiration dates on foods reflect when to buy or use a product at its best quality. So, while you won’t necessarily get sick from eating expired food, its freshness and nutrient value may be diminished. Therefore, the trick is to know how long a product is safe to eat after its expiration date." [see tips]

What Do Food Expiration Dates Really Mean?
"But even though the expiration dates generally are just advisory, they still are an important guide to freshness."

Thank you for the interesting question. We have enjoyed shopping at a 'damaged goods' store for years and have consumed our share of past due products but I've never thought to research how wise a pastime it is. I'm glad to see that I can continue with my little habit.

Thank you,




 25 Sep 2007 04:09 UTCTue 25 Sep 2007 - 4:09 am UTC 

I've become a bit disturbed by the recent sighting of foil pouch foodstuffs for people. Tuna and corned beef are two I spotted the other day and I gotta say I am not keen on buying them regardless of expiration date! If a canned item is bad you might tell so from the "popped" lid but these pouches could be harboring little nasties and you'd never notice it from the flaccid and fluctuant pouch.

Is it odd that I never was concerned when feeding the stuff to my cat?

In the late 70's I ate from discovered Civil Defense rations at an underground fallout shelter in Rhode Island to no harm. They were well over 20 years old and horrid. Whoever said, "The living will envy the dead" probably had these crackers in mind.

An old chestnut (no, not that kind):

The date on sour cream is when it goes good.





 25 Sep 2007 14:00 UTCTue 25 Sep 2007 - 2:00 pm UTC 

Hi markvmd,

Just for interest, doesn't really address your concerns regarding lack of a bulging can. Pat

Q. What is the shelf-life of StarKist® Canned Tuna?
A. Unopened StarKist® canned tuna has a recommended shelf-life of up to four years, provided the product has been stored under normal conditions and the can is not dented or damaged.
As of January 2004 we have begun printing a “Best By” Date on cans of StarKist® Tuna. However, for cans without a “Best By” Date, you can use the manufacturing code information to tell whether the can is still within the recommended shelf-life. This code is printed or embossed on the lid or bottom of the can and consists of two rows of letters and numbers. Please look at the second, or bottom row of the code. The bottom row ends with a letter of the alphabet, which stands for the year in which the product was packed. The letter “M” means the tuna was packed in 2003, the letter “L” means the tuna was packed in 2002, and the letter "K" means the tuna was packed in 2001.
Q. What is the shelf-life of the StarKist Flavor Fresh Pouch® and StarKist Tuna Creations™?
A. Unopened StarKist® Tuna in a Pouch has a recommended shelf-life of 3 years, provided the pouch is not damaged and the product has been stored under normal conditions.
As of January 2004 we have begun printing a “Best By” Date on StarKist® Tuna Pouches. However, for pouches without a “Best By” Date, you can use the manufacturing code information to tell whether the product is still within the recommended shelf-life. This code is printed on the back of the pouch, near the middle section, and consists of a series of letters and numbers. The last letter in the code stands for the year in which the product was packed. The letter “M” means the tuna was packed in 2003; and the letter “L” means the tuna was packed in 2002."




 29 Sep 2007 03:32 UTCSat 29 Sep 2007 - 3:32 am UTC 

Thanks, Patricia. In the future we will have to modify a quote from "Red Dwarf" to fit the dating scheme used by Starkist. No longer will we refer to a "Y-regged Datsun minicab." It'll be an "L-dated Starkist tuna tin."

It's a pretty obscure reference, even for fans of Lister.

By coincidence, this was shown yesterday on the local TV station's Consumer Watch on Thursday, 28 September 2007.

"Q: What’s the difference between Best-by, Use-by, Sell-by, and Purchase-by dates?

A: We found the answer at the Food and Drug Administration. It says there aren't any federal laws regarding these labels. But the FDA says generally "best if used by" means food should have its best flavor or quality up to that date. "Use-by" has the same meaning for flavor and quality. "Sell-by" tells the retailer how long the food can stay on the grocery shelf. And "purchase-by" is used as an expiration date. The FDA says none of these terms guarantees a food is safe. It says consumers should check with the manufacturer if they have questions regarding these terms."



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