The Truth About Expiration Dates

IMG_1935Let’s clear up the confusion over expiration dates, “best by” dates, and “sell by” dates. We all know that cereal doesn’t suddenly go stale the day after the date on the top of the box. Canned goods don’t go rancid the day after either, right? So when do these foods go bad? When are they still safe to consume? Is it wise to buy foods nearing their expiration dates when the store puts them in the discount bin? If we’re in a survival situation, can we safely consume pears 3 years past the date on the can?

The most important fact to know here is that the USDA does not require expiration dates on anything except baby food and formula.  Manufacturers of everything else put dates on their products voluntarily. They want you to consume their products when they are at their best quality in taste, texture, and nutrition.

Furthermore, foodborne illness is NOT caused by spoilage. Old food doesn’t make you sick. Even rancid or rotting food doesn’t make you sick. Contaminated food makes you sick. A pathogen has to be present in your food to make you sick, and at a concentrated enough level to cause illness.

Now, let’s break it down.

“Sell By” dates are often found on meat or dairy items. They’re still safe after this date, but will start to go rancid not long after, so use or freeze quickly. These items are often not sealed and are at a higher risk of becoming contaminated, so exercise caution here. Use your nose. If it smells funny, you may want to toss it.

“Best By” or “Use By” dates are merely an indication of when the manufacturer feels the item is at its best quality. It’s is not an indication of safety. This is when crackers may begin to get stale or when nutrition levels begin to break down and may not match what’s on the label. But again, this food is still safe unless there are indicators of contamination. Do not consume cans with bulging sides or bread with mold, for example.

So if expiration dates don’t clue us in, how can we tell if food has gone bad?.

We know from various food recalls over the years that even sealed foods straight from the manufacturer are not immune to contamination. So here’s how you recognize when good food has gone bad.

Signs of contamination:

  • bulging cans
  • lids with signs of corrosion
  • liquid seeping under a jar lid
  • unpleasant odor when you open the can or jar
  • liquid that “spurts” when you open the can or jar
  • eggs that float in water
  • discolored meat
  • mold growth

And finally, keep your food safe after opening by practicing good hygiene and by keeping cold foods cold and hot foods hot. Food kept between 41°F and 140°F are havens for bacterial growth. Once food is hot, keep it over 140°F. Or keep food cold at 40°F or less.

So let’s go back to our original questions, but this time, we’ll offer answers.

Canned goods don’t go rancid the day after either, right? No, no foods magically go rancid the day of or the day after their expiration date.

So when do these foods go bad? When are they still safe to consume? It depends. Shelf stable foods, stored in a cool, dry place will stay good for years after their “best by” date as long as they remain uncontaminated. But they’ll likely lose flavor and texture along the way. Meat and dairy will begin to go rancid soon after this.

Is it wise to buy foods nearing their expiration dates when the store puts them in the discount bin? Saving money is always wise. If it’s a product you’ll use before the taste and texture of the item keep you from enjoying it (stale crackers), then yes, it’s wise.

If we’re in a survival situation, can we safely consume pears 3 years past the date on the can? Absolutely. There have been cans found that have been 100 or more years old that, while they’d turned to mush inside, were still uncontaminated, and thus safe to eat.

For more thorough information, visit these websites:


Share and Enjoy

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Add to favorites
  • RSS
  • Email
  • Print


  1. Survive1999

    Safe isn’t always the issue, the nutritional components can degrade and become useless. Your belly may be full but you can still not get any nutritional value.

    Rotate your food regularly and you never have to find out.

    • admin

      You’re right. Nutrient levels do begin to decline. However, it seems to take longer than you might think. This, sadly, isn’t the full article, but the abstract alone states that recovered canned goods 40-100 years old still had quite a bit of nutrition to offer. And they’d still have calories. Definitely, always rotate your food and keep the freshest possible stores. But if you find yourself in a survival situation staring down a 20 year old can of peas, eat up!

  2. Darryn L

    What degrades over time is usually vitamin content. Sodium, fat, protein, sugar and fiber contents generally remain constant over longer periods of time.

  3. Benadrit

    Also medication true expiration dates are important in a survival situation. Food stores and gun shops may be looted first and second, probably simultaneously, but the very next place is your local pharmacy. I’m a bid proponent of herbs, and nutrition, but allopathic formulations were create for a reason. That said I’d check out the U.S. army’s study on medicinal expiration dates.
    Is a good overview of studies, particularly the army’s, on just this issue. Especially interesting was that ciproflaxin was stable for 9.5 years. Some toxicity issues with this very effective anti-biotic, but better than dieing of a staph infection.

    • Benadrit

      Had a thought that I should add. If you are preparing for bad times and have the ability to get some meds ahead of time, I’d vacuum pack them in glass with some desiccant and oxygen absorbers. Foil on the outside to block light. Store in a cool but temperature stable place.This will help to ensure that you get the longest shelf life possible out of them. Actually the same thing goes for food. Caveat for those who are newbs to thinking for yourself, do not take meds stored in blister packs out of the blister for repacking. Bad idea. I was talking about the pills in the ubiquitous orange bottles.

Post a comment

You may use the following HTML:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>