Are "sell by" dates on U.S. food required?

A friend-of-the-Mrs. happened to be staying in our guest room for a few weeks while our kitchen was being renovated last month.

When it came time to put the foodstuffs back into the newly-refinished kitchen cabinets, she said that as of some time in the year 2000, an FDA regulation requires ALL packaged/canned food to have a “sell by” date printed on it. And that, therefore, any food in my pantry that didn’t have a “sell by” date must have been manufactured before the year 2000.

I went to the grocery store a day or two later and quickly found a packaged item that had no “sell by” date on it.

So … does any such labelling requirement exist? Does it cover all kinds of packaged food, or only some? Are imported packaged foods exempt? Or is our old housemate just full of malarky?

Emphasis mine. Source:


I’m a little late with this one, but it might provide some more clarification:

The sell by date is only provided for the store that’s selling the product. It lets the store know when the product is reaching the end of its shelf life so it can be rotated to the front of the stock. A product past its sell by date will still taste the same, but if it’s past its use by date the quality (taste, texture, etc.) may be affected. The FDA says the use by date does not mean the product is dangerous to eat after the use by date. If a product has an expiration date, it may mean that it’s unsafe to eat after a certain date because it could contain bacteria or other pathogens.

These dates are provided voluntarily by the manufacturer. The FDA does not require expiration dates on most foods because the way the food is stored has a big impact on its shelf life. If a food is stored at optimal conditions, it may far outlive any expiration date provided by the manufacturer. If it’s stored improperly, it might go bad before the expiration date.

The FDA does require expiration dates on drugs and use by dates on infant formula. If the infant formula isn’t used by the date on the package, the nutritional value of the formula may be lessened.

I couldn’t find much information about imported packaged foods, but fresh foods like meat and eggs need expiration date. I think domestic fresh foods like that need expiration dates too. Also, imported foods (not sure if this refers to packaged foods or just fresh foods) have to have at least 50% of their shelf life remaining when they enter the country.

So, wait … when it comes to say, canned goods, which can go bad (and actually acquire life-threatening pathogens like botulism), the FDA is saying that they don’t require expiration dates BECAUSE canned food can go bad before the expiration date?

Doesn’t the chance of acquiring food-borne pathogens in canned food increase with time, though? Wouldn’t it make sense to at least require a “manufactured on” date for such foodstuffs?

I’m by no means an expert on food regulations (everything I know about the topic was researched just before I posted), but I think basically your statement is correct. Any expiration date can be really really inaccurate due to improper handling or storage, so the FDA doesn’t require dates because the actual day that the food becomes unfit for human consumption can vary wildly from case to case.

As for a “manufactured on” date, I agree, it would make sense to let consumers know when the product was made. But with a bit of research, you could probably figure the date out using the lot number on the can.

I seriously encourage you to check out the FDA website and all of its affiliates if you’re really curious; that’s where I got my information. It can be a bit hard to navigate, but there’s some useful stuff if you’re willing to sift through it.

If canned goods develop botulinus toxins, there was a defect in manufacturing it in the first place. I am not an expert on botulism but I’d bet a can insufficiently heated would develop the toxin in a week or two. I suppose if a can were left for years’n’years the food within might deteriorate to the point of making someone sick.

I personally found a couple cans that had been pushed to the back of the shelf and forgotten about for more than a year after their use-by date. I cautiously tried them after heating extra well. The baked beans had a kind of tinny taste. The gravy in the beef stew had jelled and no amount of heating or stirring made it melt again. Neither of them caused any gastro-intestinal trouble.

Now, who knows how much nutrition might have been lost. I could well have been getting fewer proteins, carbs, and fats than the label indicated, but two one-shots deals, who cares?