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Myth: If your food’s ‘use-by’ date has passed, it’s probably gone bad

This Pack date '221' indicates that the food was packaged on August 9th, the 221st day of the year. *As if it wasn't confusing enough, this is obviously not the case on leap years*

TRUTH: When I find a questionable food in my kitchen, I tend to look at the date, smell the food, look for mold and then, if the date has passed but there are no signs that my food has deteriorated in any way, I eat it.  I’m not suggesting that you do this, as I, obviously, am a trained professional (not really, but I can’t advocate that you eat expired food).

It’s better to toss food in the garbage (though, preferably in the compost) than to give yourself food poisoning.  However, you’ll be able to make a better, more educated guess about the quality of your food if you know what all the dates mean.  With the exception of the expiration date, consider these dates as a guide rather than as rules.  Here’s what they really mean:

Expiration Date: Let’s get this one out of the way because this one means what it says.  After this date, a product is expired and should be thrown away.  Just let it go.

Best if Used by and Use by Date:  Consider ‘best’ the operative word in this phrase because this date is just an homage to the food at its peak (when properly stored).  Once this date passes, the food will deteriorate but it may still be edible (and delicious).

Sell By: This is for the grocer but it does not indicate when the product will actually expire.  For instance, no rule exists that milk will last for 1 week after its sell by date.  The quality may still be intact but just know that your time is limited.

Pack Date: This is probably my favorite date on packages.  That’s right, I have a favorite.  I like this because I’m very interested in when my foods were packaged.  How long has it been sitting around?!  That’s a question I like answered.  Anyway, sometimes pack dates are written in a seemingly secret code, but it’s not hard to understand.

Packages may be coded by month (M), day (D), and year (Y) (i.e. YYMMDD or MMDDYY). Or it may be coded using Julian (JJJ) numbers, where January 1 is 001 and December 31 is 365. To confuse you further, letters are assigned to months (but not including the letter I).  So, letter A is January and M is December.  Then, once you have the lettered-month, you’ll also find a numeric day, either preceded or followed by the numeric year.   If you’ve made it this far in the post, I commend you because you’re probably confused.

BOTTOM LINE:  People (understandably) use these dates as an indicator of food safety, which they are not.  In fact, many of these dates are arrived at by using a ‘rule of thumb’ method.  Foods may be good long after their expiration dates or bad well before the date (if the food isn’t properly stored).  Use the information on a package as clues and guidelines.  A good rule to follow: when in doubt, throw it out!


  1. CBS News Article
  2. FDA’s explanation of expiration date claims

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