Shelf Life, Storage and Can Codes

Shelf Life

One of the most frequently asked questions about canned food is its shelf life and “use-by” dates.

The general rule of thumb is that canned food has a shelf life of at least two years from the date of purchase. It is recommended that all canned food be stored in moderate temperatures (75° Fahrenheit and below).

Proper food storage ensures that your food is safe, fresh, and full of its naturally occurring nutrients. Use this guide to help you store food safely and decide what food to keep or toss.


Are all of the foods you have on hand at peak quality and safe to eat? The dates on the package will help you decide.

“Freshness Date” or “Best if Used By Date”

This tells you how long a food will be fresh and at top quality if it is stored properly. After that date, the product may still be safe to eat, but may not taste as good.
Foods with freshness dates: Bread, salad dressing, raisins, and cereal. Many canned products have a “for best quality use by” date stamped on the top or bottom of the can. “Expiration” dates are rarely found on canned food.

“Sell-By Date”

This is the last day a food should be sold at the grocery store. Most foods will still be fresh and safe to eat for a week or so after the sell-by date.
Foods with sell-by dates: Cheese, milk, meat, and yogurt.

“Expiration Date”

This is the last day a food should be eaten and may not be safe to eat after the date has passed.
Foods with expiration dates: Baby formula

Foods that don’t have dates

Use a marker or label to indicate when you purchased them.

Reading Can Codes

Each canned food manufacturer has a unique coding system.  Some manufacturers list day, month, and year of production, while other companies reference only the year.  These codes are usually imprinted on the top or bottom of the can.  Other numbers may appear and reference the specific plant manufacturing or product information and are not useful to the consumers.

If you have specific questions about a company’s product, most manufacturers offer a toll-free number to call for questions about canned food expiration dates.  For more information about canned food expiration dates, nutritional content of canned food, and the exact date of processing, please review the answers to please review the answers to our Frequently Asked Questions about canned food storage.

For additional food safety information, please visit the USDA’s Food Product Dating section on their Food Safety Education website.