This has been discussed briefly elsewhere (e.g. here), but it doesn't seem to have been asked generally.

In the USA, there are a variety of dates printed on foods. Unfortunately, there seems to be little convention. The list includes at least the following (feel free to add more!):

  • Best by [DATE]
  • Best if used by [DATE]
  • Best before [DATE]
  • Expiry date: [DATE]
  • Expiration date: [DATE]
  • Expires by [DATE]
  • Use by [DATE]
  • Use before [DATE]
  • Freeze by [DATE]
  • Eat fresh or freeze by [DATE]

What meaning is implied/conveyed by each of those?

For example:

  • What do each of those mean in terms of taste, quality, safety, etc?
  • Are any of them firmer deadlines than another, and are any intended to be mere guidelines?
  • Common sense tells us that "expires on [DATE]" means it's assumed to be unsafe after [DATE]), but does it say anything more -- or less -- than that, and what of the others?
  • related : cooking.stackexchange.com/q/40964/67 ; there are also a ton of questions on here asking about specific items. (soda, soy milk, soy sauce, gelatin sheets, cheeses, "parmesan cheese" in a green tube, chocolate, etc.)
    – Joe
    Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 9:58
  • And one of the more important dates (as it's a risk of microbial activity: use within [DAYS] days of opening)
    – Joe
    Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 9:59
  • FWIW here in Norway dairy cartons are marked with "Best before: [DATE], often good after" as a way to discourage waste. Probably other products, too. Commented Sep 20, 2021 at 10:17

2 Answers 2


Here is a fairly extensive and generally accepted write-up http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/features/do-food-expiration-dates-matter

The only federally mandated expiration date in the US is infant formula, but some states do have others especially on dairy. Most of the labeling in the US is through voluntary programs, while some are strictly marketing gimmicks like beer "born on" dates. In general, most of the regulations are metered out by state, not federal rules and can mean slightly different things in different states. For example, milk is generally considered still usable for 5 to 7 days after the labeled date. But that date may be different in different states. In most places, sell by date is in the 21 to 28 day range from pasteurization. Montana though, the rule it 12 days, which would mean on the surface that milk should last an additional week or two past the label date in Montana. Not necessarily though, as in Montana the milk may be allowed to sit in storage for longer before it is pasteurized. Eggs in some states may get a 21 day sell by date while other states are 28 days or more and different states have very different rules on how those eggs are handled. Having been licensed in one state for eggs myself, I can tell you their rules included any egg collected in that state had to be labeled for 28 days from collection, but if the egg was from out of state no labeling laws were applied at all, the egg could be of any age. Yeah, how crazy was that rule? It allowed old eggs from other states to be blindly dumped into that state.

In most states, as long as it has been correctly stored, most food is still fine beyond the label dates, though quality will be dropping more rapidly after that date. Many states do however have regulations stating that items beyond those dates cannot be sold or even donated after the date in some categories of foods even if the food would still be considered good.

  • The link in the first paragraph answered all my questions. Thanks. Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 9:00

Just use common sense:

Best By - The food/drink tastes optimal before this point and may not taste so good after the date has expired

Expiry/Use By - The food/drink is likely to "go off" after this point and may be unsafe to consume

Freeze By - The food/drink is recommended to be frozen before this date in order to remain "as fresh" when thawed. You'd really want to freeze things before they start to break down and go off.

Best By is just a guideline based on taste. Expiry may be taken as safety related.

  • 1
    In the US, only one food product has an expiration date -- infant formula. All of the rest are 'best by' or 'use by' dates (with 'freeze by' typically a 'use or freeze by'). Some of these are indicators of risk of microbial activity, risk of noticing a taste change, risk of problem with cooking (dry beans), to help stores rotate stock, or to trick people into disposing of food before actually need to.
    – Joe
    Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 9:46

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