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Expired food at pantries is usually safe to eat.

Some people are hesitant to use free food banks or pantries due to the perceived higher number of expired products that may available. The fact is that most items are still safe to eat after an expiration date. Learn more about what “sell by”, “used by” and/or the “best if used by” dates mean. As the truth is many groceries or non-perishable items are still perfectly safe to eat after the expired date. As that expiration date that manufacturers use is not “definitive” and is not related to the quality of the items.

More than 40 million people are food insecure, including millions of children and senior citizens. This means that they do not have the financial means or a high enough income to consistently obtain sufficient nutritious food. Millions of other people will often face some type of financial hardship each year and need some short-term help. Pantries can help meet that need. Understanding what all the dates mean that are stamped on products can help consumers improve their confidence in what is safe to eat.

Improved understanding of used, sell by, or other dates can also reduce waste. As at the same time, more than $200 billion in food is thrown away annually by retailers, restaurants, and consumers. It is estimated that maybe 50% of that food is throw away in error, as the items have not really expired.

Free food pantries and misunderstanding of expiration dates

Much of this waste is caused by misunderstanding the purpose and effect of so-called expiration dates such as "use by" or "best if used by" found on food packages. One recent national study found that 90% of people are confused by such labeling. That confusion extends to people who need to use food banks but are afraid to take food that is at or past the date imprinted on the label.

People requiring assistance from food banks have fewer choices about what items they can obtain compared to people with the financial resources to obtain all their groceries from retail stores. Food bank, soup kitchen and pantry inventories are often limited because their operations depend on donations. As almost all centers are charity or church run. Food banks often maintain relationships with grocery stores, restaurant chains and food distributors that will donate products when the "expiration" date on those items approaches.




However, people dependent on free food banks may be reluctant to take items that are near or past the "use by" date included on the packaging, thinking that the item is unsafe to consume after that date. A better understanding of what these dates mean and where they originate can increase the confidence of food bank patrons to accept and use a wider variety of products.

Except for infant formula, no federal regulations require food products to be stamped with an expiration date, nor are there any uniform guidelines. The reason it is not regulated is the date is often “arbitrary”, and items are perfectly safe after those dates. Distributing past-date food is not prohibited by the federal government.

The dates often are added to the packaging by manufacturers as the best guess about how long the items will retain their freshness. In many cases, the date is a very conservative estimate. This means products, whether at pantries or the grocery store, are still perfectly safe to eat way past those dates. The bottom line is that past-date food is often healthy and safe to eat.

Common labeling terms and dates

Common date labeling on packages includes terms such as "use by", "best by," "best if used by," "sell by," and freeze by." Particularly with non-perishable products, many items can be safely consumed for days and often months after the stated date. So while food banks and charity run pantries may have some of these items on their shelves, they are perfectly safe to eat, especially if the alternative for a low-income family is to go hungry.

"Sell by" is the last date that food manufacturers want retailers such as grocery stores to display specific items on the shelf. Manufacturers generally want consumers to get their products at their optimal freshness, and this date encourages store personnel to regularly rotate products.

Items with a "sell by" date will typically retain high quality for at least several days past the stated date. The date has nothing to do with how safe the food is to consume. For instance, milk packaging typically includes a "sell by" date, but with proper refrigeration, milk often lasts five to seven days past the date before becoming sour.





"Best by" or "best if used by" dates also have virtually nothing to do with safety. These dates are subjective estimates (meaning “best guess”) by food manufacturers as to the last date on which the food will be the tastiest. For example, crackers may be less crisp a month past their "best if used by" date, but there is no health risk in eating them. While the product might not taste as good in some cases, most products are perfectly safe to consume for a substantial period beyond the date.

"Use by" is fairly similar to "best by" (see above) in that the manufacturer has subjectively (once again, they are guessing) chosen a date that signifies the last date on which the food product or groceries is at its highest quality. Again, the date has nothing to do with food safety. These items at free pantries are perfectly safe to eat.

All of these terms, for the most part, are simply indicators of freshness and not references to how long the grocery product is safe to consume. Now will a food bank, that focuses on feeding low-income households, children and others have the “freshest” products? Probably not as fresh as a grocery store – but they are still safe to eat.

While these dates reflect the manufacturer's estimate of how long the product will look and taste its best, you may very well not notice any difference in the taste of a product consumed several days past its "use-by" date. They are safe to feed to your kids, family or anyone.

Some foods such as deli meats and salads, cheese, and unpasteurized milk probably should be tossed out soon after their "use by" dates for safety reasons. But these are not the typical items you will find at the majority of food banks or pantry. However, most canned and packaged goods are safe to consume well past the date on the label.

Finally, "packed on" is a term you may find on some meat product packaging. This labeling is required by federal regulations on certain food. It is not an expiration date. It is simply the date on which the item was packaged, and consumers can use their good judgment and often their senses to determine if the food is fit to consume.

Expired non-perishable food guidelines

Perishable foods like meat, eggs, and dairy products have the shortest shelf-life, but food banks that focus on lower income or struggling households will address this as well. Very often, the most reliable indicators that these items are past their prime are your senses. Spoiled food often begins to change color or smell unpleasant. Sniffing an open milk carton or a package of ground beef will often be sufficient to tell you it's time to toss the item.





Assuming these products are safely stored in a refrigerator, eggs can generally be safely consumed for three to five weeks. Butter is good for at least three months, and lunchmeat should be consumed within two weeks if unopened or within five days of opening a package.

Most food banks and pantries focus on passing out non-perishable grocery items. These can include items like boxed macaroni and cheese, coffee, tea, cereal, and baking products. They will often have a shelf-life of at least six months and often longer and can be great as well as perfectly safe to feed your family or kids. Rice and dried pasta are good to eat for at least two years. Jams and jellies along with condiments such as ketchup can be safely stored in a pantry for up to a year. Mayonnaise is good for three months in a pantry but should be consumed within two months after opening.

There is a good reason that pantries are commonly stocked with a broad variety of canned food. Canned goods such as tuna, chicken, salmon, soups, and vegetables can typically be stored for two to five years and consumed without a problem.  High-acid canned goods like juices, citrus fruit, pickles, and tomatoes can be stored and used for 12-18 months.

Cans protect the food from air and light, prevent spoilage, and maintain the food's nutrition. Eventually, the taste and texture of the canned food will deteriorate, but with proper storage, canned food will be safe and healthy to eat for a long time.  However, be wary of cans that are deeply dented, bulging, or rusted.

Free apps that can help track food expiration dates

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has developed an app that provides guidance for the storage of various products including meat, poultry, produce, seafood, dairy products, eggs, and more. Use it as you go to a food bank. The app will tell you the length of time an item can be safely stored in a pantry or how long an item will be good in a refrigerator after being opened.  For more information, go online to

The fact is most canned or non-perishable items, which tend to be the most common goods at free food pantries, are still safe to eat. Perishable items can be a little more questionable. Use the USDA app if you have any questions as to what the dates mean when it comes to certain products.








Recent USDA studies revealed that the average American throws away nearly a pound of food per day and that almost 10% of U.S. households obtain items from food banks or pantries per year. As noted, many of the products throw out are wasted due to a misunderstanding of the various dates. All of that food could help feed millions of struggling families.

Reliance on food banks to provide at least a portion of a family's nutritional needs is expected to increase. Understanding the actual purpose of date labeling on grocery items should reduce waste. Those items are perfectly safe to eat. After all, if the two options are to either go hungry and have little no food for your family, or to eat a non-perishable item that is a few days passed “sell by” dates, the choice is clear – eat the food.

An improved understanding of the dates can provide greater assurance to food bank patrons that the products they obtain from these vital community outlets will provide nutritious, safe, and healthy meals.


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By Jon McNamara


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