University of Minnesota Extension
 Menu  Menu

Extension > Food > Food Safety > Preserving and Preparing > Storage > Dates on Food Products: What Do They Mean?

Print Email Share


Dates on Food Products: What Do They Mean?

Suzanne Driessen

"I found vegetable oil in my cupboard. It’s 2 years old. Is it still okay to use?" "How long does summer sausage keep in the refrigerator?" "How long can I keep meat in the freezer?" Many times it’s not so much a matter of safety as it is quality. We want food that is safe to eat as well as food that tastes good.

Observing "Sell-by", "Expiration" and "Use-by" dates is recommended. But what do these terms mean? There isn’t a universally accepted food dating system in the United States. Most dating is voluntary and is the manufacturers' best guess at how long the product will last.

 Terms like "best before", "better if used by/before" are freshness dates. It tells you how long the product will be at its best flavor and quality. Baked goods, cereals, snacks, frozen entrees and some canned food will have freshness dating. The food is safe to eat after this date. That three-year-old candy bar might taste stale or have an off flavor or be chewier than normal.

Meat, yogurt, eggs often have "expiration" or "use by" dates. This means you should use that product by that date for best flavor and quality. If properly stored, you have a one-week grace period to use up the product. Expiration dates on yeast or refrigerated dough indicates how long the product will retain its rising power.

"Sell By" dates on poultry, fish, meat, bread and dairy products tell the store how long to display the product for sale. Although the store should pull a product after the "sell by" date has passed, it remains legal to sell the food after this date. It is also legal for the retailer to change a date on wholesome fresh meat that has been cut up and wrapped in their meat department. Most food is safe to eat for a week after the "sell by" date. Fresh meat, fish and poultry should be cooked within a day or 2 of home refrigeration or placed in the freezer for longer storage. Once frozen, it doesn’t matter if the date expires because foods kept frozen are safe indefinitely.

What about the shelf life of eggs? The "sell by" or "expiration date" on the carton is the last day the store may sell the eggs as fresh. On grade AA eggs, this date can’t be more than 30 days from the date the eggs were packed in the carton. They are still safe in your refrigerator for 3-5 weeks at 40 degrees or colder.

Call the University of Minnesota AnswerLine, 1-800-854-1678, with your food safety questions.


Food Product Dating, USDA Food Safety and Inspection service,

Decoding Food Product Dates, Alice Henneman, MS, RD, Extension Educator & Dietitian

Making Sense out of Dates on Food Packages, Colorado State,

Other Recommended Resources

A Guide to Food Storage for EmergenciesUtah State University — Planning tips for short term and long term storage of water and food.

Reviewed 2016 by Kathy Brandt

  • © Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved.
  • The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer. Privacy