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Food Education: What the Dates on Your Food Really Mean



Best if used by, use-by, sell-by ... The variety of label terminology on food packaging can be confusing. Should food product dates be followed closely or loosely? Let’s explore the true meaning of these dates in this installment of our food education blog series.

The fact is that most foods are safe to eat even after their sell-by date has passed. You see, food manufacturers use different date codes and terms to protect the reputation of their products. They want to ensure that consumers eat their product at peak quality—so past code, the food is safe to eat but just won't be as fresh. With the exception of infant formula, use-by dates on food are not required by any federal law

Research indicates that many Americans prematurely throw out food. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, Americans throw out 133 billion pounds of food every year. According to this data, 20 percent of consumer food waste stems from confusion over date labeling.

To reduce food waste and save consumers money, it’s important to understand the dates on food packaging and what they mean. Let’s explore some key food dating phrases:

  • Expiration date: Contrary to popular belief, expiration dates do not indicate when it’s no longer safe to consume a food product. This date solely indicates freshness, and is used by manufacturers to convey when the product is at its peak. The only item required by federal law to have an expiration date is baby formula, due to the fact that formula can separate over time and clog bottle nipples. Some states require expiration dates on meat and eggs. 
  • Best if used by date: The date that’s recommended for peak quality. This does not mean that the product is unsafe after the specified date.
  • Use-by date: The manufacturer’s recommendation for how long a food product will be at its highest quality. After the use-by date, the food is still safe to eat but won’t be as fresh and its nutrients may be depleted. 
  • Sell-by date: The day the store must sell the food by. Stores sometimes donate products as they approach their sell-by dates, and if the food has been handled properly, it is still safe to eat and the quality is still perfectly fine. 
  • Pack date: Used by manufacturers for tracking purposes, this is the day that the product was packaged. 

Typically, refrigerated meat, eggs, dairy, and fresh produce have the shortest shelf life before they start to degrade in quality. For instance, fresh-cut fruit is still good for a couple of days after its code date; soft cheeses are generally safe to eat for around 2 weeks after their code date if kept in the refrigerator; and eggs are best used 3-4 weeks after purchase when bought before the sell-by or use-by date. For meat such as ground beef, pork, and poultry, a good rule of thumb is to follow the use-by date, or to cook or freeze within 1-3 days of the sell-by date. 

On the other hand, canned and frozen foods have the longest shelf life. As a general rule, if the cans are not rusted, dented or swollen, then the food is safe to eat. However, the following canned items are best used within the dates noted: 

  • Canned vegetables: eat within 2-5 years of purchase
  • Canned meat and fish: consume within 2-5 years of purchase
  • Canned tomatoes: use within 12-18 months of purchase
  • Canned fruit: eat within 12-18 months of purchase

Most frozen products can be kept indefinitely if they remain continuously frozen, although their quality may deteriorate over time. However, keep in mind that it’s unsafe to open and repack these foods, just as it’s also unsafe to thaw and then refreeze meat.  

In an effort to curb excessive food waste, there’s been a push by the food industry to standardize date labeling. Fewer labels will demystify food product dates and make food education easier for shoppers to grasp. Hopefully in the near future, labeling will be simplified and American consumers won’t need to remember what all of the above terms mean.

Check out Feeding Westchester’s Food Dating Guide for more information on food product dates and to learn more about our best suggestions for how long food is safe to consume after its printed date.

Download the Food Dating Guide