In a near panic, I ransacked my pantry, tossing anything that was expired or outdated. Hundreds of dollars worth of food went into the trash because I thought it wasn’t safe to eat anymore. I just didn’t want anyone getting sick from spoiled food. But I was completely wrong about what those expiration date codes actually meant.
Food expiration date codes aren’t actually expiration dates but more like quality assurance dates. Whether it is an open date, such as a calendar date, or a closed date, such as a code of numbers and letters, you can use these date codes to figure out the peak quality date of your food item. Then you can use your senses to tell if the food is still safe to eat.
In this article, we’re going to talk about how to read food expiration date codes. We’ll talk about how to understand them, too, and how to tell if your food is still good to eat. But first, let’s take a look at what these codes actually mean.
What Is a Food Expiration Date Code?
Foods don’t actually have expiration dates. Instead, they technically have Best By dates, and these are intended for quality assurance and not for food safety. Best by dates give you the date by which the food will taste, smell, and appear its best. After that time, the food may begin to degrade in quality, but it isn’t necessarily unsafe to eat. The manufacturers say they provide best-by dates because they want you to enjoy the food they make so that you’ll want to purchase it again.
Food dating must be done in accordance with the guidelines set by the Food Safety and Inspection Service. However, food dating is not legally required by the federal government. It is a voluntary system that manufacturers use for quality control.
The exception to this is baby formula. Baby formula must have a use-by date to make sure that the formula does not have less than the stated nutrients on the container. In addition, some states have egg laws, and eggs may be required to have a sell-by or expiration date, but these also vary by state.
Food Date Wording
The FSIS recommends that manufacturers use the phrase “Best If Used By” to avoid confusion about expiration dates and unnecessary food waste. Many people, like me, have been known to throw out food that has passed its best by date because they think it has expired. But a best if used by date is not an expiration date at all. Instead, it is the date up to which the food will retain its highest quality. You may see a few other phrases, as well:
Sell-by dates are not safety dates but are information for the store. Sell-by dates tell the store how long they can stock the product on their shelves before they need to pull it and replace it with something else.
Use by dates
A use by date is similar to best if used by dates. It tells you when the food will still have its peak quality, but it doesn’t tell you when the food has technically gone bad. The exception to this is baby formula.
Freeze by dates
If your product, such as meat, has a freeze-by date, this tells you when you need to freeze the product, so it retains its peak quality. However, it does not tell you when the food has gone bad.
Instead of relying on the date, look for signs that the food has spoiled. For example, if the food has an off flavor, odor, or texture, do not eat it. It is no longer safe for consumption.
When you see a code or date on a food product, it doesn’t mean that food is automatically unsafe to eat if the time has passed (unless it is baby formula). Chances are if the food has been properly handled and stored, it is still safe to eat. That being said, there are two forms of codes that you are likely to find on your food.
Open and Closed Food Dating Codes
There are two types of food dating: open and closed. Open dating is a calendar date. For example, you may see the words Best BY followed by a calendar date. On the other hand, cans are required to have a code. This is a type of closed dating that helps manufacturers to track their products, rotate stock, and find their products in the event of a recall.
Can codes are not a best-by date; they are the date on which the food was canned. They’ll appear as a series of letters or numbers. There may also be a calendar date that refers to the peak quality of the food, and it is not an expiration date. It does not tell you that the food is no longer safe to eat.
According to the USDA, most shelf-stable foods are good indefinitely, and canned goods are good for years. However, if you find cans that are dented, swollen, or rusty, you should discard them and do not eat them.
Understanding the Codes on Canned Goods
Here’s how to understand the codes on canned goods.
1. Locate the code.
It might be on the top, bottom, side, or label. A closed code will be a series of letters and numbers. You’ll have to do a little deciphering because there are several methods that companies may use to date their cans.
What letters or numbers do you see?
2. Codes Starting with a Number
Some companies will use the numbers 1- 9 to represent the first nine months of the year, with O for October, N for November, and D for December. The month may come after the date and year, so look for which one makes sense.
3. Codes Starting with a Letter
If the code starts with the letters A through L, these represent the months of the year in order. For example, A = January and B= February, and so on. Then look for the two-digit number that represents the date and a one-digit number to represent the year. (for example, 1 represents 2011).
4. Julian Dating
If none of these methods make sense, then the manufacturer might be using a Julian dating system, where each day of the year is represented by a number. So January 1 is one, January 2nd is two, and January 3rd is 3, and so on.
How Long Do Canned Foods Last Past their Canning Date?
Food manufacturers say that canned goods are typically at their peak quality within 2 years of their canning date. (If you can’t figure out the canning date according to the codes you see, don’t be afraid to contact the manufacturer and ask them. You can usually find contact information on their website.)
Keep in mind that just because a food item has a best buy date, a use-by date, or a canning date, it doesn’t mean these foods automatically go bad when that date passes. Conversely, it also doesn’t mean that those foods are still good just because they haven’t reached their use by date. Improperly stored and handled food can make your food go bad before it should.
About a year ago I watched an interview with a scientist who tested a bunch of 30 year old normal canned goods like you would buy from the grocery store. I wish I could remember his name and what show he was on so I could link to it here in this article. He tested them for their nutritional value and found they they had almost identical nutrition as they did when they were first canned. He said they had retained almost all of their nutrition. Out of his sample of cans this scientist said all of the items were like this, nutritious and perfectly edible.
So How Can You Tell If Your Canned Food Is Still Good?
The scientist I referred to above said that food companies put best by dates mainly as a marketing ploy so that you will buy more from them. He said canned food doesn’t go bad unless the container is damaged, or unless it was stored at above normal room temperatures. He also said that when you open old canned food, if the food is bad you will know it because it will look and smell bad. He said if it looks, smells and tastes good, it is.
The key to all of this is if the can was damaged in any way allowing outside contaminants into the can. As long as the integrity of the can is sound, harmful bacteria will not be able to reach or spoil the food. Also if the cans were stored in conditions warmer than normal room temperatures, the nutrition levels could be lower and the can could deteriorate faster (depending on the temperatures) allowing contaminants into the food.
But if the cans were undamaged and stored at between 40 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit, in dry conditions, canned food can last at least up to 30 years.
If there isn’t an actual expiration date, then how do I know if my canned goods have gone bad?
The best way is to use your common sense and your senses. Never use canned goods if the cans are dented, rusted, or bulging. Also, if you open a can and it has a bad odor, taste, or appearance, do not consume it.
How can I make my canned goods last longer?
Proper handling will help to extend the life of your canned goods. According to the USDA, store shelf-stable products, such as canned goods, in a cool, dry place. Keep them away from high and low temperatures, away from moisture and light. They should be safe for years after their best by dates as long as they are handled correctly. Practice good rotation of canned goods, so you always have the freshest food available.