Stop — Those Oreos Aren’t Spoiled :: Food-Expiration Dates Explained

Written by Meleesa Johnson

During a visit to the local grocery store — not that long ago, but well before needing to look like the masked Lone Ranger upon entry — I watched a grocery worker removing a wide variety of cookies from the shelves. By big armfuls, the young man sent packages of Fig Newtons and Oreo cookies tumbling from the shelf down into an empty grocery cart below.

“Whatcha doin’?” I asked, casually strolling past.

“I need to get these spoiled cookies off the shelf,” was his quick reply as he looked at me skeptically. I suspect he was thinking I was a bit of a Nosey Nelly.

I responded with, “How do you know they’re spoiled?” knowing full-well he was going to point to the “Best-by” date printed on the package. And sure enough, that’s exactly what he did, adding that we (the grocery store) can’t have people getting sick from our food.

I took a deep breath, held up my hand like a traffic cop, and said:

“Stop! Those Oreos aren’t spoiled. They’re perfectly fine to eat.”

He looked at me and I could see he had now changed his mind about me — I was no longer a Nosey Nelly… I was a Crazy Lady!

Nevertheless, for the next 5 minutes, I explained the facts of food product dating, something I know a thing or two about as Director of the Marathon County Solid Waste Department. Poor kid…

MCSWD logo

While food nutrition labeling is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, food product dating is not regulated by any governmental agency (with the exception of baby formula). The words used — from “best-by” to “sell-by” to “freeze-by” — are constructs of the food product industry. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says that “(t)here are no uniform or universally accepted descriptions used on food labels for open dating in the United States.”

Americans waste monumental amounts of food (or at least we did before Safer at Home orders due to COVID-19 made us think twice about wasting our food or using it up any sooner than we have to because we need to limit our trips to the store). The USDA estimates the amount of wasted food at 133 billion pounds!

There are many reasons for this waste, and confusion about food product dating is certainly a contributing factor…

How many times have you grabbed a nearly or completely full container of sour cream or yogurt from the refrigerator, saw that the “sell-by” date was 10 days ago, and promptly exclaimed that the still-good contents were “spoiled” or “bad”?


Perhaps it was that can of tuna with a “best-by” date of 5 months ago?  Admit it. You know you’ve done it. Into the trash it went!

Of course, I get it. You want to keep your family safe from spoiled food. Who doesn’t?

Here the USDA advises that if the product’s dating has passed while on your shelf or in your refrigerator (and has been stored properly), the “product should still be safe and wholesome” until it shows obvious signs of “spoilage.”

Understanding what food product dating words mean will go a long way to ensuring you’re not tossing out still-good Oreos.

Examples of commonly used phrases:

  • A “Best if Used By/Before” date indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. (It is not a purchase or safety date.)
  • A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. (It is not a safety date.)
  • A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. (It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula, as described above.)
  • A “Freeze-By” date indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. (It is not a purchase or safety date.)

We can all work to reduce waste…and save money in the process.

And with Earth Day being April 22 this year, what better time to practice the first of the 3 R’s in Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and reduce our food waste by better understanding food product dates?

Earth Day

As I encouraged listeners in this Slate podcast I recorded last April, let’s all decide to make some individual behavioral choices to reduce the amount of waste we produce in the first place instead of thinking recycling is the panacea to our landfill problems.

Happy Earth Day, everyone!

Meleesa_JohnsonMeleesa Johnson

Director  |  Marathon County Solid Waste Department

Meleesa Johnson has been the Director of solid waste management for Marathon County since 2009. She oversees solid waste programming and facilities serving Central and North Central Wisconsin. Under her leadership, the Solid Waste Department transitioned from primarily a landfill business to a regional resource for residents, businesses, and local governments working on waste reduction and recycling programming as means of creating greater sustainability. Meleesa has been focused on environmental protection issues since starting college in 1996, eventually earning a B.S. in Environmental Policy and Planning. She is a Morris K. Udall Congressional Scholar for Excellence in National Environmental Policy and was recently named as UW–Green Bay’s Earth Caretaker. Meleesa’s passions are her children and grandchildren, as well as public service, serving as president of the Stevens Point Common Council and on the Portage County Board of Supervisors.  Email Meleesa Johnson.

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Image credits:
Cookie image by Jordan Benton via Pexels.
Refrigerator image by Steve Buissinne via Pixabay