Prepping and Expiration Dates

open canned corn

As a prepper, you know that canned goods are the foundation of any sensible food storage plan. But how can you make sure that you’re investing your money into items that can last? Is that jarred spaghetti sauce still good after six months?

The expiration dates on edible and non-edible products are often confusing, especially when the terms used are different from the “Expiry Date” term that most people are used to. Of course, each of the terms is vital in guiding consumers as to when they should use or consume a specific product.

There are various terms that product consumers should be aware of, to avoid disposing of products that are still safe to use, or using products that pose a health risk. The main terms used by product manufacturers include:

  • Best before
  • Expiration date
  • Sell by
  • Use by

As expected, each one of these terms has a different meaning that should guide consumers on how to use the product.

Best Before

This term is mostly used to indicate the date before which the quality of edible products is in its optimal state. If a product is best before a given date, that means that the taste, freshness, and overall quality will be at it best before the given date.

That, however, does not mean that you cannot consume the product after the given date. You can continue consuming the product, but you shouldn’t expect the quality to be at its best.

Expiration date

This one, unlike the best before date, means that a product is unfit for consumption after the given date. That may be as a result of spoilage of the ingredients used to manufacture the product, or as a result of microorganisms being present in the product.

Eating food or using a product after it has expired exposes you to serious health risks and even death in extreme cases.

shelf of canned food in a supermarket

Sell by

This term guides the seller more than it guides the buyer. As a seller, one is supposed to have sold products before their sell-by date, to ensure that their customers are getting products that are of good quality.

However, it does not mean that a product is not fit for consumption after the “Sell By” date.

The majority of products that use “Sell By” dates are usually still fit for use for up to several weeks after the given date. That means that the seller can change the date, as long as it’s within the range specified by the manufacturer.

After the maximum specified time, a seller is required to get rid of the product if they have not sold it yet.

Use by

Products that feature the “Use by” term are mostly products such as refrigerated dough and other products that may require additional preparation before consumption.

This term simply means that the given product should be used before the specified date, as this is when it’s in the best state.

In other cases such as infant formula, this term means that after the specified date, the product will most likely start diminishing in nutritional value. Of course, you can still use the product after the specified date, with the caveat that it’s not going to be of the best quality.

Relationship between expiration dates and safe consumption of products

The majority of consumers believe that they should never use a product beyond the expiration date. Well, that may be true for some products such as meat-based products.

In some cases, however, the products – especially processed products – are still safe for consumption way after the expiration date.

This may depend on various factors such as how you have been storing the products and how well the products were processed.

In the majority of cases, products such as cereal, fruits, veggies, frozen foods, pasta, bread, and canned foods can be used safely even after they have “expired”, so long as the required storage conditions are met.

In some cases, special storage such as freezing foods can go a long ways towards extending their lifespan by a significant range. This is especially true for foods that are not affected by chilly conditions.

But you should definitely pay attention to the condition of food packaging. If you see any indication of bulging in canned foods, foul smells or anything else that doesn’t seem right feel free to just chuck the food into the trash.

While it is rare, botulism can be potentially fatal and it’s not worth the risk to save yourself a dollar.

So In a Nutshell

The different terms used to determine the food that is safe for consumption can be confusing, but with enough knowledge about what each of the terms means, you can now avoid unnecessary disposal of food.

Of course, you should not just assume that a given product is safe for use after the given date.

It’s always advisable to read the manufacturer’s instruction on using the product to avoid various complications. A visual inspection of the product also helps a lot, as some looks are direct indications that food is not fit for consumption, or that the given product should not be used.