Sell-by Stuff

Wasted Food reader Brian raises an interesting question: Is there a rule-of-thumb estimate for how long past the sell-by date items stay good? After looking through my interview with Angela Fraser, a food safety expert at N.C. State University, I can generalize that most foods are fine one week past the sell-by date. 

Of course, this varies between products. Bagged spinach may go sooner, but eggs last three to five weeks past their date. Fraser recalled drinking milk 10 days past the “sell-by” that tasted fine. That’s why smelling the item is a more effective guide than any date stamped on the package.  

Food producers and stores view the sell-by date as the last day on which consumers can buy the item where it will still have a decent refrigerator life. Because they want you to have time to use the item, there’s some flexibility built into the date. Also, they have to err on the side of caution–manufacturers aren’t sure that stores will handle items properly and stores aren’t sure whether the product sat unrefrigerated on a hot loading dock for an hour before it reached their shelves. That’s where “the nose test” comes in.

In addition, the date addresses flavor more than food safety. That’s because most food will lose its taste well before it becomes a health risk. At a certain point, a food becomes hazardous, but keep in mind that there are certain cheeses based on mold. I’m not advocating you tempt fate, but it won’t kill you to scoop out the moldy bit from a jar of tomato sauce and use the rest. Will it taste as good as a fresh jar? Probably not. But it certainly won’t make you sick.   Don’t just take my word for it, read the US Department of Agriculture’s views on the topic: 


  • 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. 

When looking at their food quality estimates, keep in mind that the USDA, like stores and manufacturers, has to be quite cautious with their dates. They’d rather have some good meat tossed than have some people get sick. As an aside, the USDA estimate that canned meat can be eaten two to three years after purchase makes me glad I’m not a fan of Spam.

But back to food safety…Just be sure to take a common sense approach: If an item looks good to you and doesn’t smell bad (you’ll know when it does), bon appetit. If not–I often find cucumbers go bad quickly–toss it in the trash compost bin.                              


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