The dates on food labels can be confusing. The truth is, they often have nothing to do with food safety. Here’s what you really need to know.

You’ve assembled everything you need for the perfect deli sandwich: Genoa salami, prosciutto, some thinly sliced provolone and a crusty baguette. To top it all off, you reach into the fridge for your favorite spicy mustard.

And then you notice it. The “Best By” date on the mustard bottle was 4 months ago!  

You might think you’ve got to ditch the mustard and settle for a ho-hum sandwich. But that’s not the case. Here’s what you need to know about food expiration dates:

  • Use-By, Best if Used By, Best By, Best Before: These “use by” and “best” dates are generally found on shelf-stable products such as mustard, mayonnaise, and peanut butter.

The date, which is provided voluntarily by the manufacturer, tells you how long the product is likely to remain at its absolute best quality when unopened. But it is not
a safety date.

After the “use by” or “best” date has passed, you may start to notice gradual changes in the product’s texture, color, or flavor. But as long as you’ve been storing the item properly, you can generally consume it beyond this date.

Your best bet for gauging whether a product with this type of date is still of satisfactory quality is to simply smell and taste it first. Always discard foods that have developed an off odor, flavor or appearance. You can also consult the Keep It or Toss It database for optimal food storage times, for both unopened and opened items.

  • Sell-By:  Most sell-by dates are found on perishables like meat, seafood, poultry and milk. The date is a guide for stores to know how long they can display a particular product.  Read more here.