You're standing in your kitchen eyeing a bag of chips, a bottle of sauce, or a tasty can of something rescued from the back of your pantry and notice it's past the best-before date. What do you do? Do you eat it, or do you send it to the trash bin?

If you're like most of us, you assume the food has gone bad and toss it into the bin. Better to waste a few bucks than get sick, right? Well, maybe. There's a big difference between "expiry" and "best-before" dates. Knowing the difference could save you from wasting both money and perfectly good food.

How to Decode Date Labels on Pre-Packaged Foods

Date labels are often defined and declared by the manufacturer of the product, and while their meaning can differ from country to country, they are similar in both Canada and the United States.

Best-Before Dates

Best-before dates deal with food quality, not safety. When a packaged product is unopened and properly stored, the best-before date is the point up to which things like texture, flavor, and nutritional value are guaranteed to be at their best. After that, quality may start to decline. Eventually, any food will spoil, but this isn’t set by the best-before date. The trick is knowing best-before dates give you information on freshness and potential shelf life of the unopened foods you are buying.

Expiry Dates

If you're on a formulated liquid diet, nutritional supplements, or your baby is taking infant formula, your product should boast a true expiration date. Go ahead and take a closer look.

In Canada and the United States, an expiry date is only required on foods that have strict compositional and nutritional specifications which might not be met after the expiration date. The following foods should be discarded and not be bought, sold, or consumed if the expiration date has passed:

  • Infant formula
  • Formulated liquid diets
  • Foods sold only by a pharmacist and prescribed with a physician's prescription
  • Meal replacements
  • Nutritional supplements
Time Limits for Food Storage

Once a package is opened, best-before dates no longer apply. Both the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services and Health Canada offer guidelines for safely storing refrigerated foods to retain the highest quality in freshness, taste, and nutritional value:

  • Milk: 7 days after “best-before” date, opened or unopened
  • Cheese, hard: 3 to 4 weeks opened, 6 months unopened
  • Yogurt: 7 to 10 days, opened or unopened
  • Eggs, in shell: 4 weeks
  • Fresh Poultry: 1 to 2 days
  • Hot dogs: opened package 1 week, unopened package 2 weeks
  • Bacon & Sausage: 1 week
  • Soups & Stews: 3 to 4 days
  • Leftovers: 3 to 4 days
  • Jams and jellies: 3 to 4 months, opened
  • Mayonnaise: 2 to 3 months, opened
  • Salad dressing or vinaigrette, bottled: 6 to 9 months, opened
  • Salsa, bottled: 4 weeks, opened

If you're concerned about a specific product, check out the Canadian Food Inspection Agency or the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service for more information.

Bottom Line: If your sealed box of cereal, canned good, or jar of spaghetti sauce is a little past the best-before date, chances are it’s still tasty and good to eat. Enjoy!

Kerry K. Taylor is a consumer expert at Squawkfox.com.