Food expiry dates: what do they really mean?


Food waste is a huge global issue. Roughly one third of the food we produce every year — approximately 1.3 billion tonnes — gets lost, tossed and wasted. While fruits and vegetables account for the most food waste, fresh foods such as dairy, seafood and meat aren’t far behind. One of the reasons these foods get wasted is due to our stringent and rigid habit to toss foods that are at their expiry date. But is food really spoiled when the date on the container is reached?

Expiry dates on fresh food: Imagine you’re buying fresh meat, chicken, fish, deli meat, smoked fish or a prepared salad from the deli. You will probably notice a date that indicates when your product is no longer fresh and safe. Depending on the country you live in, this may be labelled as a “use by” or “best before” date. These dates are the most important to pay attention to, as these relate to food safety. Following these dates can help reduce the risk of food poisoning, because these foods have a short shelf life and can grow bacteria quickly. These fresh, perishable foods are only good for 2-4 days in your fridge.

  • To reduce food waste: The date is valid if the food remains in the fridge, but it can be ignored if you put that meat, fish or poultry in the freezer! If you won’t be cooking the fresh food within 2-4 days, freeze it. It will stay fresh for 6-12 months.

Expiry dates on packaged, frozen, dried and canned foods. These dates guarantee freshness, but have nothing to do with food safety. They are less important to follow, because they only indicate the date where the quality and freshness begin to change. For example, expired crackers may be less crisp; vitamin C may fade away from juice; dried fruit may get harder. Not the tastiest, but certainly not a food safety risk.

Remember, the expiry dates on packaged foods indicate freshness for as long as the item remains unopened. For example, a jar of tomato sauce may expire in 2020. But once you open the lid and put it in the fridge, it may only last a week. The expiry date is only meant for UNOPENED foods. Once they are open, the expiry date is meaningless (so don’t keep that tomato sauce until 2020!)

  • To reduce food waste: Don’t toss packaged food that has expired. If it looks and smells good, it’s okay to taste it. It’s important to note that the shelf life or fridge life of food products is not set out in any government regulations or guidelines. Instead, it is the responsibility of the manufacturer or retailer to determine the expiry dates for the products that they sell, based on how long an unopened product will retain its wholesomeness, taste, texture and nutritional value. 

Expiry dates on dairy and eggs: This one may surprise you – but milk, yogurt, cheese and eggs are likely safe to consume within a week (or more!) past their expiry date. These foods have a built-in “throw out” system. Milk will curdle and sour (don’t drink it), and yogurt will grow curdle and mold (don’t eat it). Hard cheeses may get moldy, but if you trim an inch past the mold, you can still eat whatever remains. Soft cheeses that get moldy need to be discarded (but they are so good that you’ll eat them before the expiry date, right?)

Eggs can last 3-4 weeks past their stated expiry date. If you crack an egg and the whites are pinkish or it has a rotten smell, don’t eat it.

  • To reduce food waste: Don’t immediately toss dairy or eggs when they reach their expiry date, since they stay fresh for a while longer.

Sell by dates: These are meant for the retailer, not the consumer. These dates are used for stock control purposes by shop staff, so they can keep track of inventory. The more important dates for you as a consumer are the expiry dates on fresh food.

  • To reduce food waste: Don’t toss fresh foods that have passed their sell-by dates. They are not the same thing as expiry dates! Look at the expiry dates instead – it’s often a week longer than the sell-by date.

How long does it last?

Sometimes, this is the hardest question to answer. There’s no agreed-upon expiry time for many products, which leaves consumers confused. Here’s an interesting example. I checked a bunch of reputable websites to see how long ketchup lasts once it’s open. And I found a range of every answer from one month to six months to two years to “it never expires!” Which is correct? Who knows for sure. But if it’s one month, that will lead to a ton of food waste! In my house, I’d say it lasts about a year.

Still curious? Check out, a huge database that answers the question “how long does this food really last?”

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Cara Rosenbloom is a Registered Dietician, celebrated author and international columnist, active as a food blogger, recipe developer and nutrition educator.

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