The Food Expiration Dates You Definitely Shouldn’t Ignore

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Food expiry dates can be confusing – you’ve got your use-by dates, best-before’s and even sell-by dates. So what means what? And, is it ok to go beyond the expiry on some products? Can we just go by the sniff test? We get all the definitive answers!

Who hasn’t tempted fate by tucking into a fridge item a few days – or more – past its use-by date?

But when it comes to flouting food safety labels, do some foods pose a greater risk than others? And can we afford to ignore them, if not wasting food is the goal in mind?

What’s the difference between use-by, sell-by and best-before?

Before going against the advice of certain labels you should probably know exactly what you’re ignoring, starting with the ubiquitous use-by, sell-by and best-before dates.

Sell-by should be pretty obvious – it refers to when a product can be legally sold by. The “use-by” label always resonated a more stern and authoritative tone than its passive counterpart, “best-before” – and well, that’s the point, really.

Dr Sandra Cuthbert, general manager for the Food Safety and Corporate Branch at Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) explains the ‘use by’ date is about safety, and a ‘best before’ date is about quality.

“Any food with a use-by date must be eaten before a certain time, because they may pose a health or safety risk after that date. These are generally fresh foods that are highly perishable and need to kept refrigerated – for example, deli meats, fresh milk, poultry, seafood,” she tells 9Honey.

These foods should not be eaten after their use by date – and can’t legally be sold after this date.

The lion’s share of food products, however, don a ‘best-before date, and that’s where you get a little wiggle-room.

“These are usually packaged shelf stable foods like biscuits, dry pasta and long-life milk. You can generally still eat foods after the best before date as they should be safe but they may have lost some quality,” Dr Cuthbert says.

“Food that has a best-before date can legally be sold after that date, as long as it is fit for human consumption.”

Do all foods have a use-by, sell-by or best-before date?

Bread isn’t subject to the same rules as some perishables, and can be labelled with a ‘baked on’ or ‘baked for’ date if its shelf life is less than seven days. Then, really, it’s up to the consumer if or when it should get tossed out (more on that shortly).

Foods that have a shelf life of two years or longer, like many canned foods, don’t need to be labelled with a best-before or use-by date.

“This is because it’s difficult to give an accurate guide as to how long these foods will keep, as they may retain their quality for many years and are likely to be consumed well before they spoil,” Dr Cuthbert explains.

Is it safe to eat food past its expiry date?

Not necessarily. Food becomes unsafe to eat when disease-causing microorganisms grow in it, and as there’s no real way to tell if these microscopic nasties are present, organisations like FSANZ advise strongly against eating foods past their use-by date.

“These microorganisms, such as listeria and salmonella bacteria, can grow rapidly in fresh foods, especially if these foods have become cross-contaminated by dirty hands, or been left out of the fridge for long periods,” Dr Cuthbert says.

The fact is, not all food exhibits the signs of spoilage, such as mould and a rotten odour.

So for those who still want to test the limits, there’s a few things you should know.

Does the sniff test work?

Food poisoning isn’t much fun, but how many are willing to wage their health – and stomach contents – on good old olfactory senses? Sadly, the fact is the trusty ‘sniff test’ doesn’t always work.

“Unfortunately you can’t generally tell if food is safe or not by simply looking, tasting or smelling it,” Dr Cuthbert says.

“The best way to be sure is to eat the food by its use-by date, and by following manufacturers’ storage and cooking instructions.”

Does frozen food go off?

“Freezing” food is a bit of a misnomer, as really you’re just slowing down the decaying process. But in saying that, it does prolong the life of food items.

“Freezing items, like meat, before their use-by date allows you to keep them beyond that date, but you should always defrost them in the fridge and use them as soon as they are thawed to be sure they are still safe, Dr Cuthbert says, adding: “Freezer doors often give guidance on how long frozen food should be kept frozen.”

Packaged foods, on the other hand, do not generally support the growth of harmful microorganisms – even some with a best-before date.

“They are usually fine to keep for longer periods, but may lose some of their quality.”

Which foods can be eaten after their expiry dates?


Eggs, particularly refrigerated eggs, are usually safe to use past their best before date. You may have heard old eggs float in water and this trick can indicate the level of freshness, but a floating egg doesn’t necessarily mean it’s spoiled.


These days milk goes through a pasteurisation process that kills off nasties like listeria. Drinking spoiled milk can cause food poisoning if consumed in large amounts, but a sip is unlikely to cause any harm. If it’s been properly refrigerated and hasn’t exceeded its use-by date by much, it’s worth checking if the milk smells funky, has thickened or has changed colour before tossing.


Once a tub of yoghurt has been opened it should be eaten within a week. However, if it’s been sealed and refrigerated it may be usable for up to two weeks after the best-before date.


This depends on the type of cheese but generally speaking, it will last longer than its recommended best-before date. White mould is pretty normal for some cheeses, but dark mould should never be consumed. For hard, aged cheese you can scrape off mould spots and rub with a salt solution, however more porous cheeses (like soft cheese), or packet grated cheeses with more surface area, should be tossed if you spot mould on them.

Cooked or raw meat

Even cooking your spoiled meat to oblivion won’t kill off dangerous toxins in the flesh, so it’s not recommended you use past its recommended use-by date – with the exception of frozen meat. If frozen, thaw in the fridge and consume immediately after it’s thawed.

Packet salads

They often have a longer shelf life than conventional greens and veggies, and if they’ve remained sealed may be safe to consume after the use-by date – however, be sure to inspect for mould and toss if you spot any.

Fruit or veg juice

Fresh fruit juice that is acidic will keep longer than vegetable juice that is not. Shelf-stable juices with added sugar and preservatives will last for months after the expiration date if left sealed.


In the case of bread, appearance and smell tells you more than a use-by or a baked-on date. Check for mould (any mould) and a sour smell. Storing in the refrigerator will prolong its life.

Deli meat

Even deli meat that seems okay after the expiration date should be chucked. It’s not worth the risk, with listeria and other sinister organisms possibly present.


Unopened ice-cream can last up to three or four months, and opened ice-cream is usually only good for half that.

Honey, molasses and maple syrup

Because of the high-sugar, low-moisture content and viscosity of these pantry syrups, they can last well after their expiration date.

Canned goods

These air-tight goods can last for two years or longer.

Biscuits, crisps, dried pasta and long-life milk

Items dried pasta and long-life milk can last up to two years or more past the expiration date. For highly processed items like store-bought biscuits and packets of chips, it will depend on a few factors, like if they’re completely dehydrated and still in the original sealed packaging, but generally will last at least a couple months after their best-before date.

This article was reproduced with permission from  9Honey. To read the original article, click here.

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