Are Foods Safe To Eat After The Sell By Date?

Who among us hasn’t uncovered a forgotten package of food stuck behind the mammoth jar of mayo, way in the back of the refrigerator? A slightly-expired date on the label doesn’t necessarily mean that the food is unsafe to eat.

Interestingly, the date on the container or package doesn’t refer to whether or not the food is safe to eat. It actually refers to the quality of the food. The date stamped on the package is used to help guide the store manager as to how long to keep the product on the shelf and to give the shopper a time frame as to when to purchase or consume the food at its best quality, according to the USDA. Food dating is usually found on perishable items such as meats, poultry and dairy products.

According to the USDA, a “Sell By” date on the product is used by the store to determine how long to display the product. The “Best if Used By” date tells you just that the date you would want to consume it to reap the best quality and flavor. The “Use By” date is the manufacturer’s recommendation for the absolute last date to consume the item at its peak quality.

When playing the food-labeling-dating game, remember this:

  1. You should always buy the food before the date expires and refrigerate perishable items immediately at 40 degrees F or below.
  2. If the food has been mishandled, such as leaving the hot dogs on the counter for more than 2 hours at room temperature, or more than 1 hour at 90 degrees F or above, these pups are no longer safe to eat, whether the date has expired or not. Remember: “When at a loss, give the food a toss.” Click here for more food and kitchen safety.
  3. If a food item has a “Use-By Date”, eat it by that date. The only exception is if you freeze it. If it is frozen at 0 degrees F, it will last for an eternity (food safety-wise that is; quality-wise is another story), so don’t worry if you pass the labeling date while it’s in the deep chill. Click here for more on shelf life in the deep freeze.
  4. If it has a “Sell-By Date” or no date, you should cook or freeze the produce according to this chart developed by the USDA:
PROCESSED FOODS Stored in Refrigerator*:
  Unopened After Opening
Cooked, processed
poultry or sausage
3 to 4 days 3 to 4 days
Bacon 2 weeks 7 days
Hot dogs 2 weeks (but no longer than
1 week after sell-by date)
7 days
Lunch meat 2 weeks (but no longer than
1 week after sell-by date)
3 to 5 days


FRESH FOODS After opening, store in refrigerator* for only:
Poultry, sausage, or ground meat 1 or 2 days
Beef, veal, pork and lamb 3 to 5 days
Eggs 3 to 5 weeks
Cured ham, cook-before-eating 5 to 7 days

*Based on the recommended refrigerator temperature of 40 degrees F or below.<br>
Source:  Food Safety and Inspection Service, USDA

The information provided on Health Search Online is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.