Skip to content
Subscriber Only
Business
Pursuits

Decoding the Secret Language of Food Expiration Dates

Decoding the Secret Language of Food Expiration Dates
Photograph by Raymond Forbes/Getty Images

Americans tend to harbor dark suspicions about that forgotten can of beans in the back of the pantry, far past its sell-by date. If you’re like most consumers, you probably just toss expired items on the better-safe-than-sorry principle (unless, perhaps, it’s a Twinkie). But there’s a good chance many aged food remains totally safe to eat, according to a new report (PDF) that blames the flawed food-dating system for tons of perfectly edible food getting wasted each year.

While many consumers consider the dates printed on foods a hard deadline, they actually indicate maximum quality or freshness, not safety, explains David Fikes, vice president in charge of consumer affairs at the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), a food trade group. “Producers want people to have the best experience of product,” he says. There’s a window after the “expiration” date when a product is still edible—it just won’t look or taste quite as good.