Decoding Dates On Food Packaging – What Do They Mean?

by Texas Homesteader ~ 

You may look at a box of mac-&-cheese and notice the date stamped on the box has passed. 

But it can be so confusing. Use-by date – Sell-By Date – Best-By Date – what does it all mean???

Dates can be confusing, Use-by, Sell-By, Best-By - what does it all mean? Food waste in America is around 40%. Don't toss good food! #TexasHomesteader

Where Does Food Waste Come From?

Did you know the U.S.D.A estimates 30% (I’ve even heard 40% from some sources) of the food in the United States is wasted?

Wow. Shocking, right? 

Now some of that waste happens right in the fields, problems with harvesting machinery & such.

Other waste may be a result of that produce being shaped or sized imperfectly. Oftentimes a store refuses to accept perfectly good but visually imperfect produce from farmers. They want only perfection to sell to their customers. (I absolutely hate this!) 

And some waste can be attributed to such things as restaurants serving too much food. Or even that apple being forgotten in the back of your fridge until it’s no longer appealing.

Confusing Product Date Labels

But often, food waste is a result of consumers being confused about product date labels. 

Years ago I referred to those dates as ‘expiration dates‘. I think most folks did back then. But I assumed if the food was expired, it was no longer safe to eat. 

Food waste happens when package label dates are misunderstood and thought to be unsafe in error. #TexasHomesteader

As much as I hated to waste food, I was afraid to make my family sick. So I’d sigh and toss it away.

Fast forward several years – I started researching it for myself.

Always Research Reputable Sources

Now I realize that just because it’s on the internet doesn’t make it true, y’all! It’s important to do your own research and use reputable sources. You want to research sites that report fact, not opinion. So I went directly to the U.S.D.A. site to check it out. (reference links at the bottom of this post)

What I read on their site was a relief. And I must say I was surprised to learn those dates aren’t placed there by the U.S.D.A. at all! Heck product dating isn’t even required by the U.S.D.A. 

That’s because those dates have no bearing whatsoever on whether or not a product is safe to eat. It’s simply a freshness gauge, placed on the product by the manufacturers themselves.

The U.S.D.A. site emphasizes that those dates have nothing to do with food safety.

For me this was game-changing info!

What Happens To Food After Date On The Package?

So you might see a date stamped on that box of jello, cake mix or can of beans and question the contents. You might wonder:

if food is ‘out of date‘, can you still safely eat it?

Again, the dates on that box of cake mix are placed there by the manufacturers. It’s simply a gauge of when you can expect the highest quality from that product.

Very long after that date stamped on the package, the baking powder in that cake mix may start to lose some of its punch for instance.

Or if much time has passed, perhaps the ingredients could even begin to taste stale. But dangerous? Pffft.

According to the U.S.D.A.:

Are Dates for Food Safety or Quality?
Manufacturers provide dating to help consumers and retailers decide when food is of best quality. Except for infant formula, dates are not an indicator of the product’s safety and are not required by Federal law.

What Date-Labeling Phrases are Used?
There are no uniform or universally accepted descriptions used on food labels for open dating in the United States. As a result, there are a wide variety of phrases used on labels to describe quality dates. 

Examples of commonly used phrases: 

  • A “Best if Used By/Before” indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date. 
  • A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date. 
  • A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula 

Food safety or waste, Is food past the date stamped still good to eat #TexasHomesteader

Packaging Damage & Food Spoilage

Now having said that, it’s important to note that if the packaging has been damaged, actual spoilage could certainly occur! 

I’ve always heard that if a can is dented more than the depth of your index finger, maybe you need to investigate further. If the dent on a can causes an actual crease in the edges, it’s possible the contents are compromised.

So inspect the packing first. If the package is heavily damaged, the can is swollen or the contents just don’t look or smell right, toss it. Better safe than sorry!


But at our Homestead I know the dates on packages of food are only freshness suggestions. I realize they’re put there by manufacturers who have two goals: 

  • 1) To make sure you have the best experience possible when consuming their product, and
  • 2) hopefully get you to buy that product again.

(I wonder if that gives them incentive to make that ‘Use By‘ date an even shorter time frame to get you to buy it more frequently? Hummmm…)

Anyway, I’m certainly not a doctor and would never suggest you eat food deemed unsafe.  But it’s always better to have the correct information under your belt when making these decisions for yourself.

An informed decision could have you wasting less perfectly good food due to a misunderstanding of the purpose of that date on the label!

So be sure to do your research and decide for yourselves. Helpful reference links are included below.


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Meat & Poultry Food Safety Questions?

  • Call the USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline toll-free at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854)

(The Hotline is open year-round and can be reached from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Eastern Time) Monday through Friday.)

  • E-mail questions to
  • Consumers with food safety questions can also “Ask Karen,” the FSIS virtual representative. Available 24/7 at


U.S.D.A. Food Product Dates

4 thoughts on “Decoding Dates On Food Packaging – What Do They Mean?

  1. Nancy

    I remember having to pull baby items if they were (I think) a month away from the expiration date, at CVS. As a shift supervisor you could get written up if they were on the shelf. Sometimes there might be there might be just a few cans, but other times there might be half a cart full. Kaleigh was a baby then and I always watched the date on her things.

    1. Texas Homesteader Post author

      I know formula is tricky, date-wise – but not sure about baby food. But for my own pantry since there are no babies here, I base packaged food more on how it looks and smells before I rely on the manufacturer’s self-imposed date on the package. ~TxH~

  2. candace Ford

    I had an interesting experience with dates not too long ago. Of all things it was an issue with Good Earth brand tea. I love that tea in the evening and had always kept several boxes in the cool room in the basement where I store canned and packaged stuff. I opened a box, opened a tea bag and it smelled funny. I checked the date – safely far in the future!!! The tea tasted nasty. I opened all the rest of the bags and a couple more boxes – all dated decently far in the future. All nasty smelling. I emailed the Good Earth company – never got a reply. I ended up opening every packet of that tea and putting it in the compost. Sheesh. Grudgingly I still buy that tea but only one box at a time!!! I could have taken it back to the grocery store but I didn’t.
    I usually go by smell and appearance over dates but I still (try to) rotate stuff on my shelves. After my dear mother died there were lots of past date packages and containers in her cupboards. Some (cake mixes) I used and they were just fine, some cans were rusty and that stuff went to the compost.

    1. Texas Homesteader Post author

      Candace, in my opinion your method of rotating food regularly and gauging the food inside the packages by smell and appearance over dates is spot on. That’s the way we roll at our Homestead as well. Like you said, rusty cans – nah. But cake mixes? Provide the baking powder & such is still viable it will be just fine. In any event, the date on the package is not a food safety issue anyway. Thanks for sharing your experiences! ~TxH~


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