Food Expiration Dates: When should you throw it out?

Best by
Posted at 7:18 PM, May 16, 2013
and last updated 2013-05-16 19:18:00-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WTXL)-- Anytime you go to the grocery store, you’ll see sell by, use by, best if used by and more. So just what is the difference between all of these product date stamps?

            According to Dr. Tiffiani Onifade with the Florida Department of Food Safety, there isn’t much.

“You have all these things that are put on the food and most of them have to do with quality,” said Onifade.

According to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer services, a “sell-by” date means the product should not be sold or consumed after that date. A “best if used by” date is the last date a product will be at its peak for flavor and quality. A “use by” date is the last date a product should be consumed.

But should you really throw foods out by that date? Dr. Onifade says yes.

 “Post those dates, sometimes you’ll get spoilage, especially with perishable items,” she said. “You may have off coloring, the taste may be off, the smell may be off post those dates.”

Dr. John Fruin is Chief of the Florida Bureau of Food and Meat Inspection. He says that some foods may actually need to be thrown out weeks before the expiration date.

“If you’re talking about a perishable product, then you want to use it within a day or two of that and you also want to look at the condition of the food,” said Fruin. “Even if it’s before that sell by date, if it’s been temperature abused, you may not want to use it.”

            According to Dr. Onifade, foods like deli meat or cold cuts should be used or thrown out within seven to ten days of opening them.

“There’s the potential for there to be pathogen growth, which are bacteria that are harmful, and there’s potential for that growth in cold conditions, and so those are some foods that you want to be careful about,” Onifade said.

In addition, Dr. Fruin advises being sure to thoroughly cook raw meats to avoid harmful bacteria growth. He also suggests careful food safety practices to not mix foods like produce and meat.

“Food bourn illnesses normally are caused by foods that you don’t know are bad,” said Fruin. “Say you chop up chicken on a cutting board and then you slice the tomatoes and then the lettuce on the same cutting board without cleaning it is not good.”

            Dr. Onifade and Dr. Fruin both encourage food safety practices while you’re still at the grocery store as well.

“Be careful how you stack your foods,” said Fruin. “Don’t put your produce on the bottom of the cart and then some leaky chicken packages on top of the produce, keep them separated, and avoid any type of cross-contamination in grocery shopping.”

“Washing your hands, washing surfaces and don’t cross contaminate raw foods with cooked foods, cook foods to the proper temperature and you want to make sure that you refrigerate them soon after you cook them,” said Onifade. “So if you follow those things, you shouldn’t have too much of an issue with food bourn illness and keep safe.”

            And of course, they say you don’t have to feel guilty about reaching in the back for the freshest product. Dr. Fruin says when he buys milk, he finds the one with the longest use-by date.

            To learn more about the Florida Department of Food Safety, visit their website at