Expiration dates mean quality, not safety

The local grocery store where I earned minimum wage in my high school days closed down after I went off to college because it could no longer afford to compete with the Wal-Mart Supercenter in the next town.

I suppose confining the sale of expired goods to a single grocery cart at the front of the store really limited our earning potential.

Likewise, confining my ideas on the safety of out-of-date food to simple assumptions really limited my family’s money-saving potential. In my naivety, I assumed that dates on food referred to how long they were safe to eat.

This is not true.

Most dates provided by manufacturers on packages of food are just an indication of when the quality of the item will start to decline and—in the majority of cases—foods will remain safe past the date given.

This is why people are comfortable buying expired foods at discounted prices from online sellers in the UK and local groceries in Pennsylvania.

Many food safety authorities feel that pregnant women should be more careful than these buyers, though. Agencies in Europe, New Zealand, and Australia, each tell pregnant women to avoid food past their ‘use by’ dates protect themselves and their babies from harm.

I am certainly not the foremost authority on the diet of a pregnant woman. But in the words of my new favorite USDA FSIS fact sheet,

“‘Use-by’ dates usually refer to best quality and are not safety dates.”

Expiration dates don’t really mean much

While working at the hometown grocery store in high school, I spent one summer cleaning the shelves. As I removed and dusted each item and shelf, I would put the goods I found had expired in a grocery cart up front for half off.

That cart cleared out about as fast as I could fill it.

Even at that time (pre-Food Science degree and Barfblogger status), the huge demand for those products baffled me. Weren’t the dates there for a reason: to protect consumers from bad product?

The FDA says,

“Selling food past the expiration date [on most products] is not a violation of FDA’s regulations or law.”


“When storage conditions have been optimal, many foods are acceptable in terms of taste and other quality characteristics for periods of time beyond the expiration date printed on the label, and also are safe to eat.”

Shoppers at the local grocery told me they were never afraid of getting sick. They said some things had less flavor or color, but the savings was always worth the sacrifice.

A USDA FSIS fact sheet explains,

“Except for infant formula and some baby food, product dating is not generally required by Federal regulations.”


“…even if the date expires during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality — if handled properly and kept at 40° F or below.”

So, wait… what is the purpose of providing expiration dates? Perhaps they only serve to make good food affordable in tough economic times.

The UK Telegraph reported recently that online retailer Approved Food is doing big business with the expired cart idea.

As the self-proclaimed “BIGGEST online sellers of clearance, short-dated and out-of-date food & drink” in the UK, Approved Food can’t even keep up with their demand.

A notice on Approved Food’s website today said,

“We currently have a 7-day backlog of orders that are to be processed… We strongly recommend that you place your order next week when we will have more items [for sale]."