Expiring Products – Food & Ingredients

Did you know foods, even shelf-stable foods like flour and canned foods, can expire? In this post, we cover the basics around food and ingredient expiration dates.

Do all foods and ingredients expire? 

Most foods and ingredients expire or become unusable at some point in time, with few exceptions.

Are all foods and ingredients required to have an expiration date legally? 

Neither the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nor the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires foods and ingredients to contain expiration dates, use by dates, or other sorts of quality identifying dates for any foods and ingredients other than infant formulas (1,2). 

Food and ingredient manufacturers often include production dates, optimal consumption dates, and/or spoilage information, that information is legally required to be factual. However, companies may use different terms and take different approaches to share this information based on the products they produce.  

While this can be confusing, there are industry efforts to streamline and standardize the language used to describe food optimal use dates.  

What are the differences in terms and date types?

You may see different terms and date types on the packaging, below are common practices and their meanings according to the USDA and FDA (1,2,3):

  • Best if used by/before: this term is NOT an expiration date, rather it’s the date where the food may be at its best quality 
  • Use by: on any food OTHER than infant formula, this term is NOT an expiration date, rather it’s the date where the food may be at its best quality. If “used by” is present on infant formula, it’s an expiration date, and you should discard the infant formula after the use by date 
  • Sell by: this term is NOT an expiration date, rather it’s the date where the food may be at its best quality 
  • Freeze by: this term is NOT an expiration date, rather it’s the date where the food should be frozen to maintain the best quality 
  • Expiration or EXP: this is aexpiration date and usually only found on infant formula and some baby foods 
  • Guaranteed fresh: this term is NOT an expiration date, rather it’s the date where the food may be at its best quality 

 

Do preserved foods, like canned goods, expire? 

Yes, canned goods and ingredients can and do expire.  
 
High-acid preserved foods like tomato and fruits can expire after 12-18 months. Low-acid preserved foods like meats and vegetables can stay fresh for 2-5 years.  
 
However, if the containers are rusted, dented, bloated, or in any other way damaged, you should not consume the preserved food as it could be unsafe or contaminated.  
 
If you’re unsure if a food or ingredient is safe to use, the USDA created a free digital app, FoodKeeper, that allows you to look up a food or ingredient and see the typical lifespan of the food or ingredient based on the storage condition. It’s free and available to use on a computer or download on an apple or android device.  

Do shelf-stable dry ingredients like flour, beans, and other ingredients expire?

Yes, dry ingredients like flour, beans, pastas, and more expire and can become unsafe to consume.  
 
Different dry goods expire at different rates depending on many factors, including how they are stored. For example, all-purpose flour stored in a pantry has a shelf-life of approximately one year; dry egg-free pasta stored in a pantry has a shelf-life of approximately two years; sugar is one of the exceptions in that it never spoils, but should be used within two years to ensure the best quality.  
 
It’s best to look up specific dry ingredients using the USDA food safety app, FoodKeeper, to see if it’s safe to consume. 

Are eggs, dairy products, and meats labeled for expiration?

While not required, the majority of egg, dairy, and meat producers that fall under the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) choose to include quality and expiration dates. 
 
When these labels are voluntarily applied, producers are required to label the products in a way that is easy to understand, truthful, and complies with FSIS regulations.

Do frozen foods expire?  

No, frozen foods do not expire. However, they may not taste good due to freezer burn and texture changes caused by freezing.

How can we tell when foods are expired if there is no expiration date? 

If there isn’t a precise expiration date, there are many other ways to identify expired foods and ingredients. Often there will be a change in the color, texture, consistency, odor, and/or taste caused by microbes and/or oxidation. 
 
Microbes that spoil foods and ingredients are undesirable bacteria, fungi, and yeasts that can grow in our food products. These microorganisms feed off the foods’ nutrients and can cause serious harm to humans if consumed. Bacteria such as listeria and botulism can invade our foods and, if consumed, can cause us to become critically ill. Less harmful bacteria, fungi, and yeasts will grow on foods making them inedible. 
  
Oxidation, which is a term for certain types of chemical reactions, can impact food safety and flavor by causing an undesirable chemical change that can turn fats rancid and can cause vegetables and fruits, such as cut potatoes and apples, to brown. Enzymes and other chemical breakdown processes are responsible for the oxidation that transforms foods into an unpalatable, and at times, unsafe product. 
 
If you’re unsure if a food or ingredient is safe to use, the USDA created a free digital app, FoodKeeper, that allows you to look up a food or ingredient and see the typical lifespan of the food or ingredient based on the storage condition. It’s free and available to use on a computer or download on an apple or android device.  

How can I easily keep track of expiration dates? 

You only need three supplies to label expiration dates on food and ingredients: 
How to calculate and label the food expiration date:  
  1. Look up the food or ingredient using the FoodKeeper app
  1. Identify the storage condition you plan to use and the lifespan recommended for that storage condition. 
  1. Put a piece of tape on the food or ingredient. 
  1. Use the purchased, manufactured, or the “best if used by/before” date to calculate the expiration date. 
  1. Write the expiration date on the tape that’s on the product and then store accordingly 

A word of caution.

It’s critical to pay close attention to how you store your food, and to follow food and ingredient cooking best practices (1,2).  

It’s also important to note the typical lifespan of foods. For example, meat, dairy, and produce expire rapidly while shelf-stable foods when stored properly can be safe for a much longer period of time.  
 
When in doubt about the quality or safety of a food or ingredient, it’s best to toss out the food rather than risk illness. 
 

The good news.

At the time of publication, we are still battling COVID-19 and it can be tempting to stockpile foods and ingredients. Knowing which foods and ingredients are safe to store for extended periods of time and which are not, helps us make better decisions.  
 
It also reminds us that if we choose to store foods and ingredients for longer periods of time, it’s important to store them properly and use them promptly so we are not unintentionally wasteful.

 

 

 

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